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Film Review: “In the Heights”

Written by: Victoria Alexander | June 10th, 2021

Broadway behemoth Hamilton must have been a fluke. This is a musical without songs. And the overwrought, over-long “showstopper” is by grandma.

Actor Anthony Ramos photographed by Ruven Afanador
Actor Anthony Ramos photographed by Ruven Afanador

All I knew about In the Heights was the sexy cover and adoring piece on “multi-talented, breakout star, Anthony Ramos,” in The Hollywood Reporter. The headline is: “A Star for a Whole Generation of People”: Anthony Ramos’ Long Journey to ‘In the Heights’ and How He Embraces the “Superpower” of Being a Latino Actor. Hollywood is betting that the multihyphenate has the star appeal to catapult Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jon M. Chu’s musical into one of the first post-pandemic hits.”

From reading THR’s glowing article on Ramos, I was sure there would be terrific dance numbers featuring Ramos. Nope. He hardly dances, does not have a signature “song” and is not photographed as a heart-stopping leading man. Ramos is directed without a leading character’s edge and he is denied a strong star-making role. The other cast members easily outrank him in charisma.

Ramos’ photographer in THR brings out his magnetic sensuality. Perhaps he did not get along with the director, Jon M. Chu?

We are all terrified of saying anything negative about everything and with our sensitivities regarding diversity in America, how could I be honest in my review without becoming “The Villainous Critic”?

Well, here goes my condemnation. 

Film Poster: IN THE HEIGHTS
Film Poster: IN THE HEIGHTS

IN THE HEIGHTS opens with Usnavi (Ramos) telling the story about his beginnings in a Washington Heights bodega to a group of sassy children on a tropical island beach. We now watch the long movie knowing Usnavi has succeeded in leaving the Heights and has followed his dream to return to his heritage in the Dominican Republic.

With the overwhelming success of Hamilton, creator Lin-Manuel Miranda swept through Hollywood appearing on sitcoms, comedy shows, SNL, Mary Poppins Returns, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Sesame Street. 

In the off-Broadway production, Miranda played Usnavi. Moving to Broadway, In the Heights won 4 Tony Awards, including best musical and best original score for Miranda.

Every big Broadway musical must have one or sometimes 2 or more (“Phantom of the Opera”) showstoppers. Many of them you know well, such as: “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” (“Dreamgirls”), “America” (“West Side Story”), “Big Spender” (“Chicago”), Cabaret (“Cabaret”), and The Music of the Night and the Phantom theme (“Phantom of the Opera”). 

No “song” in IN THE HEIGHTS is memorable and not one “song” is a song you can leave the movie singing or even remembering. The music is atonal.

Here, Miranda inserts himself in a meaningless role as the neighborhood frozen ice in a cup vender. He is angry Mister Softee is ruining his business – damn those corporate thieves – but he does not take a match to the truck. He jumps on top of it and dances a little.

The main storyline is Usnavi longs to return to the Dominican Republic. He has a fear of even approaching Vanessa (Melissa Barrera Martinez), a hairdresser who wants to be a fashion designer. She has ambition. The heart and soul of IN THE HEIGHTS is Usnavi’s adopted Cuban grandmother, Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) who the entire community worships. She has a very large part and the musical’s biggest, loudest and longest “song.” She is heavy-set (I’m not fat-shaming), wearing a muumuu and walking around train stations hunched over. A chorus of worshipful angel-seamstresses follow her.

Usnavi helps his teenage cousin, Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV). Sonny’s father is played by Marc Anthony, the only terrific thing in IN THE HEIGHTS.

I am not sure that the warning of a city-wide blackout foreshadows anything suggesting a drama. Electricity went out everywhere. No one intentionally targeted Washington Heights. But depression over no lights causes a malaise in the whole neighborhood.

Because racial diversity and harmony is at the root of the movie, a black dispatch worker at a cab company, Benny (Corey Hawkins), works for Kevin (Jimmy Smits). Benny is in love with hot Nina (Leslie Grace), Kevin’s daughter. Nina has returned from Stanford University and there is a big tuition payment due. Financial Aid is not on the table and dad Kevin cannot pay for the upcoming semester.

Then someone wins a $96,000 lottery purchased at Usnavi’s store. All across the U.S., the venue that sells a winning lottery ticket gets something. The Washington Heights residents buy Lottery tickets at Usnavi’s grocery store.

Film Image: IN THE HEIGHTS
Film Image: IN THE HEIGHTS

Lottery retailers earn 5.5% on each ticket sale and up to 1.5% on cashing winning tickets, for an average of 6.2%. The average Lottery retailer sells $250,000 in Lottery products earning approximately $15,000 a year in commissions.

California currently offers the biggest retailer bonus. Powerball sellers can earn a reward of up to $1 million. The last time a retailer received this sum was for the record-breaking $1.5 billion draw on January 13th, 2016, where three lucky ticket holders made history taking a pre-tax annuity total of $528.8 million each. One of the tickets was sold in Chino Hills, California, at a 7-Eleven. The 7-Eleven store received the seven-figure bonus for selling the ticket.

Apparently, Miranda does not know this. If the winning ticket holder claims the prize, Usnavi gets a commission as well as selling all those losing tickets. Guess who brought the winning ticket?

I enjoyed the TV series VIDA with Martinez playing the sexually liberated Lyn in the Starz series from 2018-2020. All the women are sexually fluid and lovemaking with men and women are shown. In Season 1, the second episode shows Lyn giving her man a rim job and then her willingness in exploring his receiving anal sex. VIDA was the most provocative show that needs to return. Gay sex never looked so good. Also, in the cast is Dascha Polanco, from ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK.

Film Image: IN THE HEIGHTS
Film Image: IN THE HEIGHTS

The laziness of the IN THE HEIGHTS production shows in the unfocused cast, the non-wardrobe (Usnavi only had one shirt), the dancing was poorly done and the music is accompanied by yelling.

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Member of Las Vegas Film Critics Society: www.lvfcs.org/. Victoria Alexander lives in Las Vegas, Nevada, and answers every email at victoria.alexander.lv@gmail.com. For a complete list of Victoria Alexander's movie reviews on Rotten Tomatoes go to: https://www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/victoria-alexander/movies. Victoria Alexander contributes to Films in Review (http://www.filmsinreview.com), Film Festival Today (http://filmfestivaltoday.com) and Las Vegas Informer (LVInformer.com).

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