In The Heights is a visually stunning film lacking substance. Despite some strong themes about gentrification, belonging and community, this movie lacks the conviction to actually mold that into compelling storylines.
Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely enjoyed In The Heights and nodded along to a lot of the musical numbers. This is a proper big-screen summer blockbuster and a feel-good musical that’ll leave a smile on your face. While watching anyway. Over the coming days, and listening to the soundtrack on its own, In The Heights lacks that same lasting power to hold it up next to the biggest musicals.
Compare any song from Grease or Mamma Mia to In The Heights and you’ll be hard-pressed to even call it a contest.
Clocking in at 2 hours 20 minutes, the film does tend to get stuck in a rut of repeating the same themes and ideas. However, the songs are pretty good, the lyrics catchy and the dazzling colours and breathtaking cinematography will leave you captivated. So why does this film have no substance?
Well, the issues with In The Heights are two-fold. The first comes from its songs. With the exception of In The Heights and Carnaval, very few of these stand out as tracks you’d belt out in the shower. Barely any of these tracks sport the punchy choruses to keep the soundtrack a mainstay on your Spotify playlist. Sure, they’re fun in the moment but are you really going to be singing along to “When You’re Home” repeatedly?
The other problem – and perhaps the bigger issue – comes from the main stories that are interwoven together.
Sure there’s a big Coda and a nice little twist at the end but some of the plot threads are left completely unanswered. The gentrification issue for example, with the greedy businessman buying out properties, is just sort of abandoned halfway through.
The midpoint dramatic spike – a blackout that plunges the neighbourhood into darkness – is contradicted by a big happy number about fireworks.
Character-wise, In The Heights is a mixed bag. Usnavi is certainly a charismatic protagonist and the salon girls add some much-needed charm and femininity. Both Nina and Vanessa’s characters though are wrought with issues.
Nina is struggling at Stanford and heads back to the neighborhood feeling lost and and struggling to break the news that she’s not as big a hotshot as everyone things. She has three separate musical numbers about this, and an interwoven romance with “Benny from Dispatch” does little to help.
Nina also an utterly bizarre and hilarious habit of interrupting Benny too, keeping him quiet so she can hear the sounds of the neighbourhood. However, the pair do have a relatively consistent arc by the end.
Veronica meanwhile, does not. She’s a gameplayer and essentially manipulates Usnavi while he plays games with her. This builds up to a crescendo at a club where – while on a date together – the pair start flirting with other people. This forms the crux of their will they/won’t they romance, which eventually ends with a big decision that changes the complexion of both their lives.
There’s an additional subplot in this involving Usnavi’s friend Sonny but the plot takes some serious liberties and contrivances with this, despite some solid foreshadowing early on. It turns out Sonny holds a secret that could prove disastrous. No spoilers here but don’t expect a resolution to this storyline.
While ambiguousness is fine, the bigger problem comes from the way Usnavi and Veronica’s story ends. There’s a big twist here which seems clever in the moment but the more you think about it, the more unsettling it becomes.
I’m being careful not to divulge any spoilers but the film has a tonal issue with its themes, jumping between following your dreams and making the most of a helpless situation, giving the film a somewhat disjointed ideology. There’s also that aforementioned material about gentrification and at times In The Heights gets lost in its grand ideas.
Now, a lot of this can and will be overlooked by people thanks to the dazzling visuals and audio. In The Heights is a euphoric sensory explosion. Colours pop off the screen, the choreography is excellent and there’s an absolutely stunning sequence midway through the film involving a character called Abuela. It’s poignant, beautifully written and hands down one of the best sequences from the big screen this year.
Overall though, In The Heights is a bit of a mixed bag and a hard one to score. As a filmgoer and lover of musicals, there is a lot to like here – especially if you go into this one and switch your brain off.
Unfortunately that experience comes at the expense of a well written ending, catchy songs that stand up over time and fulfilling character arcs. As a look at minorities and the negatives surrounding gentrification, this one deserves some credit for portraying this in a creative way. Does it make up for the themes and lack of character? Probably not.
In The Heights shoots for the stars but falls short of those expectations. It certainly has enough visual flair to keep you watching until the end, and there’s definitely some big positives to be had from this. But is In The Heights a film you’ll return to in a hurry? Probably not.