In The Heights **1/2
One Liner Review:
A somewhat entertaining musical, this one has the right attitude and idea, but doesn’t take it’s stories far enough to really make us care.
There’s a lot going on in In the Heights. Maybe a little too much. The movie tries to explore lots of different stories of characters living in the same neighborhood, and to it all through song. Now the songs are very impressive, but the stories themselves and situations characters get involved in are not. Story always comes first, and this movie doesn’t seem to realize that. So conflict is kept to a minimum as the movies focus seems to be trying to show us that all of these characters have big dreams and plans that they are all trying to act on at the same time. It feels repetitive and also unrealistic. There’s only one story with real conflict, and even that one isn’t given enough time. Maybe that’s because the movie is too busy trying to show everybody else’s story too (including even a brief story for the man who sells icys, and for the women who run the nail salon.) It’s an ambitious effort, but it doesn’t quite all fit together well.
In the Heights is a very different kind of movie. It’s a musical, to be sure, but it’s a musical about a community. It’s about a neighborhood and a group of people. Now, there aren’t really all that many musicals that come out these days. So when does, it often finds itself in unique territory already. But In the Heights is more of an ensemble film and multiple story situation than most. That’s probably because it’s baaed on a Broadway show. When you think about some of the other big musicals from the last twenty years, like Chicago, Dreamgirls, an La La Land, most of them are bases on shows. Only La La Land isn’t (the best of the three,) and that probably goes hand in hand with why that movie is not an ensemble film whereas the others are. La La Land is about a couple. It is two stars, and exactly two stories. In the Heights, on the other hand, is a completely different ball game.
The movie, for what it’s trying to do, actually has the exact right amount of stories. To really capture this neighborhood and community, you need stories about all different people and lives. And this movie has it. There’s the story of Usnavi and Vanessa, the story of Benny and Nina, the story of Sonny, the boy, and the story of the nail salon women (that one takes a back seat to the others.) But each of these stories has branches that extends to other characters. For example, Benny and Nina’s story includes Nina’s father (played by Jimmy Smits,) almost as much as it includes Benny.
Usnavi is our protagonist here. That’s right, even in an ensemble piece where there a whole, large stories that have nothing to do with Usnavi, we still have a protagonist who gets a little more screen time than anyone else. We open the movie with Usnavi, close with Usnavi, and go back to his narration throughout the film, as he tells the story of what happened during this summer, to a group of children. Usnavi is a guy on the move. In fact, just about every character in this movie is on the move. We’ll get to that in just a moment. For Usnavi, he’s a bodega store owner in Washington Heights, Manhattan, and he’s been dreaming about going back to the Dominican Republic his whole life. That’s where he lived with his parents until he was seven. His father has since passed away, (probably not long after Usnavi left the DR.) Usnavi now remembers those days fondly (every day he wakes up, looks at pictures of him and his father in the DR, and says “best days of my life.”) Now, he finally has the opportunity to go back, has the deed to a bar on the beach that his dad used to own, and has plans to move there and reopen it.
We open the movie with Usnavi waking up in the morning, getting ready, and then going to work. We join him inside the bodega where we meet Sonny, his teenage nephew who works for him. We also meet a whole bunch of characters who come in, mostly for coffee, and sing as they do. In fact, the entire sequence is a rap song, mainly sung by Usnavi, and it’s pretty fantastic. It moves fast, is full of humor, and informs us about a whole lot of what’s going on in this neighborhood. One of the things we learn pretty early on here is that in Washington Heights, you can’t go more than a few steps without running into someone’s plans. Clearly the movie lives and dies by that phrase, because everyone here is making moves and changing his or her life (everyone except Benny, really.) But that gives us a whole bunch of characters, a whole bunch of stories, and one consistency… change.
Usnavi is closing shop and moving to the DR. Vanessa, his love interest, is moving down to a much lower part of Manhattan (West 4th Street.) She is looking to emerge in the fashion and clothing design business and not having much success. Nina is a college student who has come home for the summer, and is having second thoughts about going back. She goes to school in Stanford, out in California, where apparently she is one of the only Latino students (this doesn’t seem very believable.) The problem with her deciding to drop out is that this devastates her father, who will do anything to keep her in school, including selling his entire business. The story between these two characters is by far the most interesting one in the film. Then there’s Sonny, who is an undocumented immigrant and just realizes during this movie how detrimental that can be to the rest of his life (he finds out he can’t go to college.) And the nail salon ladies… their story is also that they are moving. In their case, they are moving uptown, to the Grand Concourse area of the Bronx, where the rent is much cheaper.
Now, it’s definitely nice to have so many stories and characters and energy and momentum. But there’s a problem. There’s not enough conflict in this movie. The stories are mostly kind of empty. The only story with real merit that is given time to breath and validity in the way that characters struggle with each other is the story of Nina and her father. She doesn’t want to go back to the college and he wants her to go. If it’s for financial reasons, which is what she tells him it’s about, then he’s right in his stance. It’s his decision. If he wants to sell his business, that’s up to him. But then there’s the idea of whether she has to accept his money. Especially if she doesn’t want to go back for other reasons. And it turns out, that’s exactly what’s going on. Nina tells two different stories that show how she feels while she’s at Stanford, and neither one is very flattering.
The first story she tells is about how she was at a party, at the Dean’s house, and there were all these preppy white kids there (she doesn’t say that, but you definitely get the sense,) and then one of donors hands her a plate and says, “I ordered the vegetarian meal.” In other words, they think she’s a server. And all of the people who are servers there are Latino, whereas all of the students and donors are white. When I said earlier that Nina not being able to find a community of Latino friends at the university is unlikely, now it makes a little more sense… she can’t find that community among the people she is being put with academically. Her work has gotten her into parties at the Dean’s house, but she sees that at these parties there is really nobody like her. The other story Nina tells involves her getting searched when something her roommate lost went missing. The roommates parents and the RA came in and did the searching. The stories are meant to be dramatic, and they certainly aren’t right, but they also aren’t all that extreme. And this is about as dramatic as the movie gets. In particular, it all boils down to one scene around a dinner table at a party, with Nina and her father going at it.
Other than that, this movie is more interested in the songs than the stories. And so we have tons and tons of songs (nearly every story and idea is presented to us in song form,) but very little conflict. Usnavi is leaving. That’s his conflict. Only it really isn’t, because it’s only in a scene towards the end where Vanessa comes over and tells him not to go, that it actually becomes a conflict. And that’s just for one brief scene. In fact, his story is so devoid of conflict that the movie has to manufacture one, forcing a moment at a night club where Usnavi gives Vanessa permission to dance with other guys and then gets angry at her for actually doing so. Now, it doesn’t really matter that this idea seems to come out of nowhere. One could still believe it, based on the fact that the characters are drinking, so might be more emotional than usual. What matters is that it the conflict is over and done in the blink of an eye. Literally Usnavi says something, Vanessa says something back, they go their separate ways, and the story is over and done. No resolution, no mention of it another day. Just completely forgotten about. And that’s the most conflict these characters get. And they are the protagonists.
Now that really is the problem here. The movie is not all that exciting or dramatic. Compare this to Dreamgirls for a moment, where every character had a dark side, and there was loads of betrayal. Here, other than the Nina and her father story, trying to find conflict among these characters is like grasping at straws. For example, both Usnavi and Vanessa don’t have parents. But the viewer has to work hard just to figure that out. Does it ever actually come up in the movie? No. Instead, they spend their time getting funny and creative with musical numbers. So we get a song in the nail salon where the manequin heads wearing wigs start moving, a song where the characters make random objects out of a white cartoon line (like a baseball bat or a Jedi light saber,) and a song where characters dance on the side of a building. Now, all of that is great. It adds to the music and makes those scenes fun. But it still doesn’t make up for the fact that there isn’t enough going on in this movie.
It’s very strange to have a movie with more storylines and more characters than most films, and with an extended running time (this one nearly two and a half hours,) and to still say that the movie doesn’t give us enough. Maybe the problem is that there really are too many characters. After all, what if they eliminated the story about the nail salon girls? We don’t actually learn anything about those girls anyway, and cutting them would mean cutting multiple songs including one that takes place out in a courtyard between buildings. What if they cut out the Sonny story? Is the problem that there is too much or that the stories they do have aren’t handled properly? They don’t give us enough explanation or detail. For example, is Nina’s father selling the space where his business was to the dry cleaner, or is he selling the company? If it’s the space, then can’t Rosario’s, the car service company, just move to another location? If it’s the company, then does Benny still have a job, just under a new owner? These questions are important, but they don’t get answered. Instead, the movie makes time for Lin Manuel Miranda to have a song about selling ice pops, and for the elderly woman to have a song about life. Now, considering how many ways the movie drops the ball with storytelling, it’s a wonder that this is still a good film. Chalk that up to the enjoyable musical numbers, the facts that while the stories don’t feel complete, they are still presenting us with something new and different, and that the atmosphere here is a pretty cool. You definitely feel like you are part of a community and an experience with this movie, and that’s always a good thing. But as far as storytelling goes, this one leaves a lot to be desired.