In the Heights -B+
Rated PG-13, 143 minutes
The fun, feel good musical "In the Heights" from "Hamilton" creator Lin-Manuel Miranda keeps the summer moving along in full swing. Based on Miranda's Tony Award-winning musical of the same name, which actually came before "Hamilton," was originally slated for release last summer before the pandemic changed things, is helped by upbeat music and dazzling choreography that will have you toe-tapping in your seat (whether at home or in the theater).
The scent of a cafecito caliente hangs in the air just outside of the 181st Street subway stop, where a kaleidoscope of dreams rallies this vibrant and tight-knit community. At the intersection of it all is the likeable, magnetic bodega owner Usnavi ("Hamilton's" Anthony Ramos), who saves every penny from his daily grind as he hopes, imagines and sings about a better life.
Striving for better hopes and dreams is the driving force behind the energetic, touching "In the Heights," directed by "Crazy Rich Asians'" Jon Chu and written by Quiara Alegría Hudes, who also wrote the book for the original musical. Fans of the musical will note that "Heights" is a mostly faithful adaptation of Miranda's musical, retaining much of its original core and spirit. Chu's spirited direction also keeps moving at a vibrant pace, even when the story occasionally sags.
"Heights" also benefits from a strong cast, especially the charming Ramos as Usnavi. Ramos, a "Hamilton" vet, also played Usnavi on stage in one of its later runs, and the film gives him a star-making part that will surely boost his career. With that big, toothy smile, freckles and a tense side-eye, the camera loves him, not to mention he handles Miranda's contemporary lyrics, infused with plenty of Miranda's trademark raps, with grace and skill.
Stage veteran Daphne Rubin-Vega, Jimmy Smits (yes, that Jimmy Smits, '80s and 90's TV star), and character actress Olga Merediz, who originated the role of Abuela on stage and plays her here too - a wise move by producers to retain her for the film - are standouts among the large, talented ensemble. Filmed on location in New York City (or Nueva York as referenced in the film), the numbers "96,000" and "Carnaval del Barrio" are the most memorable, with sublime choreography and dazzling energy.
The plotting for "In the Heights" is clearly secondary to the music, and you won't remember much of it, and that said, the film runs a tad long, but Miranda enthusiasts won't mind. And as strong as Miranda's music is, it may suffer some unfortunate comparisons to "Hamilton," which overall is better musically, but still has a buoyant charm. Lively, colorful and vastly entertaining, "In the Heights" is a must-see, leaving you with a much-needed big smile and a fresh alternative to summer horror or action movies. In theaters and streaming on HBO Max, it's worth your time.