Review: In the Heights (2021)

Director: Jon M. Chu
Screenwriter: Quiara Alegría Hudes 
Starring: Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Jimmy Smits, Olga Merediz
Genres: Drama, Comedy, Musical
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some language and suggestive references 
Release Date: 6/11/21
Runtime: 2h 23min 
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 96%
Where to Watch: HBO Max, Theatres

Jon M. Chu’s In the Heights is one of many films that got delayed due to the pandemic, and is one that is probably meant to be seen in the theater. Perhaps, then, it was not ideal for me to view it for the first time on HBO Max, when I had to pause it multiple times — and dealt with some annoying playback issues — and was not seeing it on the big screen with other cinephiles. I mainly decided to watch it this way because of the sheer convenience of it, and because my mom and I wanted to watch it while eating dinner. Regardless, we both enjoyed it immensely, and I’m pretty stoked (as the millennials say) to watch it again. 

First off, I never saw the original, Tony-winning Broadway production, which ran years before Lin-Manuel Miranda’s next show, Hamilton. Miranda, who played the main character, Usnavi, on Broadway, steps aside (he has a fun cameo) and lets his Hamilton co-star, Anthony Ramos, take the lead. I’m glad that Ramos, who was a break-out in the Broadway show and has obtained memorable bit parts in films like A Star is Born, gets the chance to really shine here, in a role that shows off his ability to sing, rap, dance, and act. Because he is so charming and likeable, though, it’s hard to see him as an awkward young man who’s nervous around pretty women. And, yet, he carries the film so well that if this role doesn’t make him a true movie star, then I don’t know what will. Throughout the nearly two-and-a-half-hour runtime, he goes through a full spectrum of emotions, all of which are fully believable and authentic, even when breaking out into song and dance. I’d love to see him in the awards conversation, but his only real shot at recognition would be at the Golden Globes, which are (at the moment) not happening next year. 

The rest of the cast is solid, and I couldn’t find one weak link in the entire ensemble, some of whom are well-known and some who are not. Some familiar faces include Ramos, Jimmy Smits (in a substantial father role that is not one-note), Corey Hawkins (who can apparently sing really well), and Dascha Polanco (having a blast). Olga Merediz, as Abuela, is the only actor to reprise her role from the original Broadway production, and it’s easy to see why she was Tony-nominated. Her big musical number is perhaps the best in the show, although it’d be hard to narrow it down to just one; I’m hoping that she’ll be campaigning for Supporting Actress this season. Another stand-out is Daphne Rubin-Vega, a veteran actor who is a scene-stealing delight as salon owner in a romantic relationship with Stephanie Beatriz’s character. It’s very smart to add an LGBTQ+ element to the story without force-feeding us or emphasizing the queerness of it, although maybe it could have used even more of that, especially as its wide release coincides with Pride Month.

I have to also shout out the female leads, Melissa Barrera and Leslie Grace, the former, who previously had very limited acting experience, and the latter, who was already a fairly well-known singer. They’re both clearly talented and destined for stardom, and they have plenty of chances to shine, with both their singing and their acting. Their chemistry with their respective love interests (Ramos and Hawkins) is authentic and you get a sense of everyone’s history without flashbacks or unnecessary exposition. 

There’s also a cameo from another of Miranda’s Hamilton co-stars, Christopher Jackson, in a funny bit that carries into a post-credit scene. You may also spot Marc Anthony in one scene, giving perhaps the most subtle, nuanced performance in the film. I actually wanted to see more of him. The script — written by Quiara Alegria Hudes, who adapted her own book of the play — isn’t perfect, as I wasn’t always certain of the characters’ motivations, but the cast and Chu’s assured direction sell it. After Crazy Rich Asians and now with In The Heights, Chu has solidified himself as a strong director with large visions that, with his talent, are attainable. From what I’ve heard, Chu has expanded the scope of the story — as compared to the play — which makes everything all the more exciting. 

I have to also mention the sound work here, as it’s impeccably done. As far as I know, much (if not all) of the singing was performed live, which makes the vocal work here all the more impressive. It’s impossible to err when it comes to movie musicals; just look at the terrible sound editing/design in last year’s The Prom. The singing and music also feel organic and in tune (pun intended) with the story. 

Is In the Heights perfect? Probably not, but it’s the perfect summer movie. It’s a crowd-pleaser that’s actually very well-made and well-acted, featuring a diverse cast and characters. Sure, it’s probably a little long, but what else do you need for a summer movie?