‘In the Heights’ flat in every possible sense of the word

Images courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.

2/10 In the Heights is borderline unwatchable. Everything is bad. Alice Brooks’ cinematography is downright incompetent, and every decision by editor Myron Kerstein is questionable at best and obviously wrong at worst. Jon M. Chu is a weak director, befitting a project that seems to have been someone else’s afterthought from the first day of production to release. To make matters worse, writer/producer Quiara Alegría Huedes, who co-wrote the original musical with producer/actor Lin-Manuel Miranda, has made some baffling decisions in adaptation that beg serious questions about how well she understands her own work.

Washington Heights, Manhattan, summer- Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos) runs a corner bodega as the summer reaches its peak. He dreams both of getting back to his native Dominican Republic and of Vanessa Morales (Melissa Barrera), a salon worker who herself dreams of getting out to Lower Manhattan and opening her own business. Meanwhile, Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace) has returned from Stanford University, and struggles to tell her father Kevin (Jimmy Smits) that she doesn’t want to go back. Benny (Corey Hawkins), Kevin Rosario’s employee and Nina’s boyfriend before she went to Stanford, rekindles their romance. The story is told by de la Vega to his children at least a decade in hindsight from his father’s idyllic coastal bar El Suanito back in the Caribbean.

In the Heights is clearly not worthy of the show it was based on. There are constant, basic film language problems that call less for a review and more of a scene-by-scene breakdown of all its failures.

From its first moments, it’s obvious something is very wrong with In the Heights. The eponymous opening number would clearly play very well live, but has had all the energy sucked out of it in the transition to the screen. Everything is just a touch too slow. The lyrics aren’t delivered with the aggression they need to pop, to the point that the sing-song dialogue moments inside the song are almost indistinguishable from the regular lyrics. When it starts cutting in time with the music, that doesn’t add the missing energy either, with the slowness of cuts only emphasizing how much slower the song itself is than it should be, and the match cuts themselves have been composed poorly – they don’t flow into each other properly.

The sound is nowhere near loud enough for a musical. I’ve got my computer speakers turned all the way up and my HBOmax player at top volume, and it’s still quieter than I’d like – I switch over to Tenet to be sure, and that’s just as invasive as it’s meant to be, so the problem isn’t on my end. It could be that the HBOmax upload was just tuned incorrectly and the theatrical release is as loud as it should be, but there’s also mixing issues, with sounds overlapping and bleeding into each other and things at the same volume when they shouldn’t be, rendering what should be a rich and complex soundscape unintelligible, so even having In the Heights at the correct volume wouldn’t solve all of the problems I’m hearing.

The 11-minute introduction that should energize and excite the viewer instead leaves me needing a splash of cold water, and it mostly gets worse from there.

The presentation is all wrong. Characters are frequently shot from far away when there’s nothing else in the frame, and the flat colors make it boring to look at even beyond the baffling composition choices. It looks like it wasn’t color corrected at all. Every editing decision is simply incorrect – every cut feels like its interrupting a shot that should be held, and every shot that holds for more than a few seconds is desperate to cut to a new angle.

The performances are all terrible, but it’s impossible to blame the actors when they’re being shot and edited so carelessly. Hawkins is the only player who has the energy to rise above this terrible thing he’s trapped in.

The biggest lowlight is “96,000,” during which de la Vega realizes he sold a $96,000 lottery ticket, but does not know to whom, so he and Benny go to the neighborhood pool to announce the numbers. Even in one of the few scenes that frequently has an identifiable subject, though in most shots it’s still tough to tell who or what you’re supposed to be looking at, what’s actually happening in the scene is so poorly expressed that you don’t realize the winning numbers are being dramatically revealed on beach towels until the sequence is over. There are a couple of cutaways of the numbers being revealed, usually off-center and revealing that other numbers aren’t getting their own shots, and that’s it. What should be the centerpiece of the choreography is barely even on the screen.

The scene also features some astonishingly sloppy green screen work for inconsequential cutaways despite there clearly having been at least a day of production at a real pool, begging several questions. If these shots were so important, why weren’t they collected on-set? Why is the green screen so bad? What other pickups could have been used? Why is the green screen so jarringly bad?

Even in “Carnaval del Barrio,” where the editing is properly in time with the music, most shots are of nothing. The camera drifts aimlessly over of a sea of indistinguishable synchronized backup dancers, which even our lead characters sink into instead of standing out from. The lead of the number, Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega), is up on a table and ought to be the focus of the choreography, but instead she highlights how random most of the shots are, popping up all over the frame with no rhyme or reason and often being cut off by it in weird places.

The heavy use of the company, background castmates who participate in several of the songs, as the main visual hook for all their scenes is another issue that seriously weakens the film and speaks to a lack of creativity throughout the process. This is coming in the relatively recent wake of La La Land, and they understandably want every scene to be “Another Day of Sun,” so any time the company is on for a song, they all get together and do a big synchronized dance routine, but their relationship to the lead characters remains undefined and strange by default. Crowds in La La Land always exist in specific relationship to the scene, zooming in on our romantic leads through the sea of cars in “Another Day of Sun” or physically carrying out their growing separation in “Start a Fire.”

I mean look at this! It’s just a uniform sheet of people all doing the same dance moves. What am I even supposed to be looking at here?

By contrast, the world of In the Heights is eerily empty, the signature static of New York City created by apparently no one, until this swarm of joyous dancers materialize when summoned.

Reading up on the musical reveals that the show was absolutely gutted. It feels like Huedes split the play in half down the middle and had Chu film the wrong half, focusing on the melodrama between the two romantic pairings at the expense of the story of the disappearing neighborhood, stories that need to coexist in order to be effective.

The biggest missing piece is Benny’s conflict with Kevin Rosario. Rosario is sells his business to pay for his daughter’s education, and in the play, Benny is angry at him for taking white purchaser’s money instead of passing the business to him – this is completely absent in the movie, with the plot point instead focused entirely on Nina Rosario not wanting to go back to school.

The play is a remix of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, with a lot of the same setting details and several characters directly translated over. It’s got a real “copied homework” vibe, but that’s OK – this is homework that should be copied more often.

There’s a great deal missing from the play, much of it tying the lead characters more thoroughly to the surrounding community, but this omission is crucial because it completes the socioeconomic conflict. de la Vega and Morales want to run from the American Dream in opposite directions, he entirely out of the country Dominican Republic and she to its deepest circle in Lower Manhattan. Nina Rosario and Benny, in complement, are focused on staying in the Heights – she having left and wanting to come back home, he watching as their home disappears.

The framing device, with de la Vega regaling his children several years in hindsight, is what really kills the movie. de la Vega realizes in the climactic “Finale” that he is his community’s storyteller, and he can keep the neighborhood alive by serving as a living connection to its history, but this realization only has dramatic weight in a story being told linearly by a character who’s genuinely uncertain about whether or not he’s going to leave. When the same story is being told in hindsight, having this as the climactic realization begs weird questions about why more of the block’s history isn’t incorporated into the retelling we’re currently sitting through – questions that could be answered, again, with a more direct focus on the socioeconomics this story is supposed to be about.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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