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JAKE’S UNPOPULAR OPINION: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights is “lukewarm at best”

Lin-Manuel Miranda is a bit of a phenomenon, really. It’s hard to comprehend a writer who made his name in Broadway musicals generating so much hype in the mainstream. But the success of Hamilton has been an absolute revelation. It’s probably no surprise, therefore, that Miranda’s next project would be a passion film. Something that would have something to say, to carry Miranda’s legacy out into the world. That legacy was a story for the Latinx community – an adaptation of his stage musical In the Heights.

In the Heights is an ambitious musical film that sets its sights on being to Latinx Americans what Black Panther is to African-Americans, and what Crazy Rich Asians is to Asian-Americans. The musical is in somewhat of a renaissance since the success of Hamilton on Disney+, La La Land at the Academy Awards and other mainstream films like The Greatest Showman. So, naturally, seeing Miranda take a foray into the film medium is quite an exciting prospect.

But the finished product… just isn’t very good.

Telling the story of Latinx life in the Washington Heights locale of New York City through the lens of a Dominican storefront owner, In the Heights attempts to be a colourful and vibrant celebration of Latin American culture while also exploring the struggles of the migrant life in America. And it gets plenty right – mostly the things that we expected Miranda to get right.

Choreographed to perfection, including some stunning visual effects and a gorgeous, vibrant aesthetic, this film is an absolute feast for the eyes and ears. The dance numbers are something to behold, and I certainly can’t level any critiques there.

My first complaint, however, is that the show seemed to lack a substantial “show-stopper”. There was no musical number that stole the show and brought the emotional roller coaster to its climax. In the end, the musical journey felt satisfactory but somewhat flat. Every single song was simply “good”. None were “great”.

That being said, the music and choreography is definitely the film’s strength, and there are songs that will have your toe tapping for sure.

In the Heights‘ worst quality is its story. It’s overstuffed and at the same time, oversimplified. With so much going on, it’s incredible that by the end of the film, nothing had really “happened”. So many characters were in exactly the same place as where they began the story, and most of its emotional depth seemed to rely simply on sentimentality.

It’s a sad statement, really, considering the film’s goal of providing a mainstream story that represents the Latinx community. Perhaps a member of that community will feel differently, and I certainly respect that my experience is extraordinarily different from theirs in every way – but it feels as if the film didn’t actually have that much to say. Many of the problems faced by the characters in the film never faced any resolution, and instead of offering any sort of analysis or solution, the film seems to insist that the loose ends are tied up simply by the sentiment of a forced happy ending.

The film meanders around between the stories of its incredibly overstuffed cast of characters, attempting to cover a dozen different tales at once and,  in the end, giving closure to only a few. The film’s emotional turning points are only strong when they relate to the characters we manage to get attached to – and the film simply insists that the rest are important.

That being said, In the Heights does feature a superb cast whose performances are to be praised. Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Leslie Grace and Olga Merediz are the standouts. A minor role for Miranda himself is also enough to bring a smile to the faces of musical fans who will recognise him.

However, criticisms of colourism in the casting do carry some weight in this instance, particularly considering the demographics of the real-life Washington Heights. The absence of Afro-Latino actors with darker skin colours in lead roles is definitely problematic here. Miranda has already apologised for this and stated that he feels he needs to do better next time, and after seeing the film, I feel that the accusations hold weight and definitely appreciate Miranda’s acceptance of criticism.

Miranda has done a lot to bring Latinx to the fore of American entertainment, and I would never suggest that he made these decisions deliberately or is in any way prejudiced towards Afro-Latino people at all. I do, however, think that there could have been more thought given to this given Washington Heights’ demographics, and this is a definite stumble in the film’s goal of onscreen representation.

Overall, the film simply felt lukewarm at best. There were rousing songs, only for there to be subplots with less than inspiring endings. There were beautiful aesthetic choices, only for the narrative to wander aimlessly at times. And there were some really beautiful moments and some that completely misfired.

I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing In the Heights on the stage, so I cannot tell whether this is a criticism I am levelling at the musical in general, or simply the adaptation. Given the musical’s reception, I suspect this film might be the victim of adaptation syndrome.

In the Heights is simply a mixed basket. So much of it is wonderful, but an equal amount is very unfortunately average. 6.5 out of 10.

See In the Heights in cinemas today.