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'In the Heights' review: 'In the Heights': Spirited dancing in the streets

All the world's a dance stage for Anthony

All the world's a dance stage for Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera in "In the Heights."   Credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc./Macall Polay

THE PLOT A Dominican bodega-owner in New York City considers returning to his homeland.

THE CAST Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Corey Hawkins, Olga Merediz

RATED PG-13 (some adult themes)

LENGTH 2:23

WHERE In theaters and on HBO Max

BOTTOM LINE The movie version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical is a mixed bag of fresh salsa and old corn.

Not so long ago, the immigrant version of the American Dream was clear: Arrive, assimilate, work hard. Your homeland, wherever it was, belonged to the past. America was your future, and if you did everything right, your children would become more successful — more American — than you.

Those children see things a little differently in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s "In the Heights," a film adaptation of his pre-"Hamilton" Broadway hit. Set during a hot summer in the Manhattan melting pot of Washington Heights, this energetic if scattered musical focuses on a new generation whose hearts belong both to America and to their far-away roots. Their identities contain hyphens and asterisks, and their loyalties have been tested by injustice — or as one song puts it, "racism latent to blatant." At its best, "In the Heights" sets a swirl of cultural issues to a propulsive contemporary soundtrack of salsa, hip-hop and pop.

Our protagonist is Usnavi (an appealing Anthony Ramos), who was named for a passing ship; he’s a 30-year-old bodega owner who dreams of running his late father’s bar in the Dominican Republic. His friend Benny (Corey Hawkins), a taxi dispatcher, frequently drops by for camaraderie and locker-room talk. Benny is dating the boss’s daughter, Nina (Leslie Grace), who has returned from a difficult year at Stanford, while Usnavi pines for Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), a beauty salon worker with big dreams. As the film counts down the days until a climactic blackout, a mystery unfolds: Someone in the neighborhood has yet to claim a $96,000 winning lottery ticket.

Where "In the Heights" excels is in its joyous musical numbers (from choreographer Christopher Scott, who tapped Ebony Williams, of Beyoncé’s "Single Ladies" video, for help) and its vibrant use of color (the director is Jon M. Chu of "Crazy Rich Asians," working with cinematographer Alice Brooks). Everyday locales, from a playground to a public pool, become dance stages, and there’s one moment of gravity-defying magic when Benny and Nina dance sideways across the facade of an apartment building. Miranda shows up as the local shaved-ice peddler and Olga Merediz reprises her Broadway role as Claudia, the neighborhood’s communal grandmother, delivering a show-stopping rendition of "Paciencia y Fe" ("Patience and Faith").

The lack of a compelling story, however, is a near-fatal flaw. (The screenplay is by Quiara Alegría Hudes, who wrote the play’s book.) The romances are so casual, so non-committal, that we have a hard time caring whether they last. Metaphors occasionally land like sledgehammers, as when the blackout arrives to cries of "We are powerless!" The film is also embarrassingly sentimental: In Miranda’s Heights, somewhere there’s always a pot of comfort food simmering, an old lady smiling and an adorable child scampering.

Still, there’s spirit and heart in this production, and Miranda’s ability to mix street-music idioms with the time-honored conventions of Broadway remains impressive. For all its flaws, "In the Heights" rings with the unmistakable sound of new voices demanding to be heard.

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