Monday, June 21, 2021

In the Heights: Soft Soap

Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera in In the Heights.

You know you’re in trouble at the opening of In the Heights, the new movie of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first musical, which premiered in 2007 and moved to Broadway the following year. On an unidentified beach, Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) is entertaining four beautiful brown children with the story of his young adulthood in Washington Heights, where he ran a neighborhood bodega.  The kids have obviously been chosen for their adorableness quotient: they never stop smiling and their eyes twinkle. And the director, John M. Chu, lingers on every twinkle, as if he were shooting a video ad for a summer camp.

In the Heights isn’t even close to being as bad as many of the stage-to-screen musicals of the last couple of decades – The Phantom of the Opera, Les Misérables, The Last Five Years, Mamma Mia, Into the Woods and of course the unspeakable Cats are all way worse.  Unlike them, In the Heights isn’t ghastly, but for a movie that’s dedicated to the glories of the diverse Latin cultures of Washington Heights it’s shockingly bland. Alice Brooks’s cinematography showcases all the bright colors in the production design (by Nelson Coates) and the costumes (by Mitchell Travers), but the performers don’t present very much personality and the acting is, to put it kindly, basic. I’m sure it isn’t their fault, since everyone I recognized I remembered liking in some other movie: Ramos in the two young men’s roles in Hamilton, Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre in Straight Outta Compton, and Jimmy Smits in just about everything else I’ve seen him do. Here Ramos, who has the lead, lowers his facial muscles and widen his eyes when he wants to convey emotion, and Smits gives a wet, hangdog performance as a Puerto Rican cab company owner struggling to keep his daughter Nina (Leslie Grace, who conveys warmth but not much else) at Stanford. As Nina’s boyfriend Benny, who works for her dad, Hawkins tries to find something to play; so does Melissa Barrera as Vanessa, the aspiring fashion designer who’s dying to quit her job as a nail tech at a beauty salon, move downtown and start her real career. But the screenplay by Quiara Alegría Hudes (who wrote the book of the stage show) is pitifully thin, and Chu doesn’t show the slightest interest in helping the actors dig for material.

The plot is melodrama, but the real problem is that it’s implausible melodrama.  Usnavi is hip and handsome and appears to be the most popular young man in the neighborhood, yet we’re supposed to believe that he doesn’t have the nerve to ask Vanessa, whom he’s known most of his life, for a date. The scene where she gets him to take her dancing and then they make each other jealous by choosing other partners doesn’t make a bit of sense; it seems to have come out of some other movie. (Well, many other movies.) Nina has decided to drop out of Stanford at the end of her freshman year because her father is struggling to pay the tuition – he’s sold half the space that houses his cab company – and because she’s smarting from the treatment she’s received as a Latina at an elite university attended by a lot of wealthy kids. She tells her dad that when her white roommate misplaced her necklace the R.A. searched Nina, and that at a fancy party with rich trustees that she’d attended in a black cocktail dress one of them took her for a member of the catering staff. These plot details are so archaic that I got confused and wondered when the movie was supposed to be taking place – but it’s clearly present-day. (Everyone has a cell phone and one of the young characters is fighting to secure a college education after learning he’s undocumented.) To begin with, a brown kid from Washington Heights who got into an elite college would be on a full scholarship if her father made less than $100,000. An R.A. at Stanford who humiliated a Latina first-year student wouldn’t have a job by the end of the night. And Nina was no doubt invited to that party at least partly so the admissions office could get points for diversity.

Even with a script this dumb and a consistently mediocre score – this is Miranda in his juvenilia phase – how hard could it be to turn a splashy dance musical about a working-class Latin neighborhood into a fairly entertaining movie if you have a choreographer who knows what he’s doing, as Christopher Scott seems to, and literally hundreds of dancers? I say “seems to” because Chu and his editor, Myron Kerstein, wreck almost every number by cutting it into shreds so you can’t see what the hell the dancers are doing. Are they out of their minds? Have these men ever seen a decent movie musical? (The history of movie musicals is loaded with fabulous dances.) You get glimpses of Scott’s talent and that of his corps in the nightclub number and the Brazilian carnival number that suggest how much fun it might have been to watch a movie set in a barrio with seven or eight big dance numbers. And when there’s no dancing going on, Chu seems lost – he stages the dialogue scenes clumsily and during the solos he has the singers strolling or marching through the streets. The picture is hyperactive, and bland and hyperactive make for a deadly combination. And couldn’t Chu and Hudes have done more with the friendly collision of cultures in this setting? Chu directed Crazy Rich Asians, which wasn’t a good movie but managed to squeeze a lot of juice out of the aristocratic Chinese lifestyles and the clash between generations and between native Chinese and Chinese Americans. In the Heights includes Puerto Ricans, Dominicans (Usnavi and his teenage cousin Sonny, played by Gregory Diaz IV), Cubans (Abuela Claudia, the neighborhood matriarch, played by Olga Merediz, the one alumna from the Broadway version) and Brazilians (Daphne Rubin-Vega as the beauty salon owner Daniela). But the ensemble scenes rarely differentiate them, and in some cases – Vanessa, for example – I didn’t catch the characters’ ethnicity in their first scene so I never caught up.

The only actor who really comes across in this movie is Miranda himself. He shows up as the piragüero, who sells shaved ice in the streets, challenging the Mr. Softee man in his bigger, more expensive truck (a cameo by Christopher Jackson, who played George Washington in Hamilton). The film is loaded with people who can sing and dance, but Miranda is the only showman who knows how to shape a song and give something to the camera – and give pleasure to the audience. Watching his number made me want to revisit his delightful performance in Mary Poppins Returns (a good movie musical, by the way). He’s a pro.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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