In the Heights (2021, Jon M. Chu)

In the Heights is anemic. Tedious and anemic. There are some good performances—Jimmy Smits is great, Gregory Diaz IV seems to be good (he doesn’t get a lot of acting to do), and Daphne Rubin-Vega similarly would be good if it weren’t for Chu’s terrible direction. But since Heights is all about Anthony Ramos and his charmless proto-romance with Melissa Barrera and both Ramos and Barrera give the most middling performances amid numerous middling performances… the acting is a wash.

Supporting romantic players Leslie Grace and Corey Hawkins are much better than Ramos and Barrera (they seem to enjoy each other’s company and both—particularly Hawkins—try with the acting) but they disappear in the tacked-on third act so there’s no way they can save it or even help it. Same goes for Diaz, Smits, and Rubin-Vega… they’re all absent for the big finale. Instead, it’s all about Ramos and Ramos is pictured in The Antonym Finder next to transfixing.

The film tries multiple narrative structures to force a dramatic arc. There are book ends with Ramos telling the story to a bunch of kids, who we’ll learn a little bit more about throughout the protracted two and a half hour runtime whenever the movie needs to get its pulse up with a reveal. But then there’s also an impending citywide blackout (or so the title cards keep saying) along with it being very hot, though the heat doesn’t really factor meaningfully into the action. It’s not like there’s less singing and dancing based on temperature. It’s not like when it’s hotter Chu all of a sudden can compose a better shot.

In the Heights is like a badly done Pepsi commercial (very specifically Pepsi, Coca-Cola would’ve done a better job, especially with the CGI). Chu’s use of the Panavision frame is… well, not disappointing; it’s a predictable, constant fail. It’s clear from the start Chu’s not going to direct the film well (somehow his over-the-shoulder shots manage to be worse than the boring dance numbers) so it doesn’t disappoint but it never gets any better. There’s no show stopping number. There are a few where maybe it should be a show stopper, but Chu’s never any more or less interested in the content, which really hurts Rubin-Vega and then Grace and Hawkins (who get the showiest number, a CGI-fueled dancing on a building sequence where Chu and company can’t make it as convincing as the old “Batman” wall-climbing from the sixties; I guess it’s good to know Warner Bros., as a film studio, really just doesn’t care about special effects, be it wizards, space wizards, or musicals).

Olga Merediz is another of the “ought to get a show stopper” but her big number is an abject whiff. Though Merediz’s performance is wanting. About a quarter of In the Heights’s cast can work without acting direction from the director. Merediz is not in that quarter. But she still ends up sympathetic thanks to her big number flopping.

Bad editing from Myron Kerstein, bad use of incidental music, bland photography from Alice Brooks.

For the first fifteen minutes, it’s possible to keep the synapses firing wondering what a good director could do with the musical adaptation. Then the next two hours and five minutes wondering what an even barely capable director could do with the rest.

I started the film wondering if Chu’s ever seen a good musical, I left wondering if he’s ever seen a good movie.

There’s a great cameo from Marc Anthony, who—like a handful of the cast—belong in a better film. Unfortunately, Anthony’s opposite Ramos in the scene so it sadly ends up in this one.

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