To be sure,
critics are a hyperbolic bunch.
If we love a film, we will praise it to the heavens. If we despise one, our expressions will border on the offensive.
That being said, I don’t think what I’m about to say is an exaggeration — Jon Chu’s adaptation of Lin Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights” is, without question, this year’s most energetic, exuberant, lively film.
Bursting with enthusiasm and life, it’s a movie that, for good or ill, bowls you over, a powerhouse production so determined to impress that its cast pulls out all the stops in every scene.
It also overstays its welcome. While sincere, it restates its message so often and in such an overt manner that it threatens to alienate its audience.
Far too long at two hours and 20 minutes, its repetitious nature begins to grate, so much so that the question “Is this ever going to end?” may cross your mind more than once.
There are multiple storylines, but each deals with the same conflict — how do you stay true to your heritage and culture while trying to succeed in a society that wants you to assimilate?
Usnavi (Anthony Ramos, in a star-making performance) longs to reopen the restaurant his father owned in the Dominican Republic before coming to the U.S., yet feels compelled to stay in the Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights to run the family bodega.
Then there’s Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who longs to take the fashion world by storm and move downtown to prove she belongs among the best.
Meanwhile, Daniela (Daphne
Rubin-Vega) is readying to move her salon to Broadway; conversely, Nina (Leslie Grace) has returned from Berkeley after her first year, having dropped out. She keeps this from her father (Jimmy Smits) and friends, ashamed as they all look to her as the one who will leave and do great things.
The story is driven by Miranda’s vibrant music and Chu’s elaborate staging, sequences that are at times simultaneously invigorating and exhausting. The title number that begins the film follows Usnavi about the neighborhood, introducing the key characters and ending at the main intersection, its denizens dancing as far as you can see.
Chu serves notice in this 10-minute tour de force — he and his cast are here to impress, and they succeed more times than not. “96,000” develops into an invigorating Busby Berkley-like extravaganza that unfolds at the neighborhood pool, while “Atencion,” in which the neighborhood’s matriarch “Abuela” (Olga Merediz) reflects on her life, is the definition of a showstopper.
You’ll likely want to stand up and cheer at the end of each of these just because of the sheer physical and emotional effort. For me, it all became a bit much, a party that goes on too long where you end up looking for a polite way to leave. Your mileage may vary.
Be that as it may, ignoring this would be akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Ultimately, the good outweighs the bad; the likable cast and their exuberance are simply too entertaining to dismiss, their efforts so earnest, only a complete curmudgeon would fail to give them their due.