Groucho Marx, a man far more known for his immortal quips than profound philosophising, once told a newspaper columnist: I, not events, have the power to make me happy or unhappy today. I can choose which it shall be. Yesterday is dead, tomorrow hasn’t arrived yet. I have just one day, today, and I’m going to be happy in it. And yet Marx belonged to an industry fuelled by cynicism, despite what spruikers of the “Dream Factory” Hollywood might have you believe. Sure, the best Marx Brothers films, like Duck Soup or A Night at the Opera, were designed to elicit laughter, but we all know that laughter doesn’t always equate to happiness.
To get the most out of a film like Jon M. Chu’s In the Heights, I’d suggest checking your cynicism at the door. Happiness is crucial. I couldn’t tell you the stats on where pure happiness sits on the spectrum of emotions that occupy cinema but I doubt its prolificacy. What was the last genuinely, unashamedly happy movie you watched? It is then, a joy and a rarity to jettison one’s expectations and usual inclinations and embrace uncontaminated vibrancy. It’s also tricky when you’re also writing a review, considering the constitutional element of critique involved.
In the Heights occupies the Hairspray end of the musical range, cheerfully blowing a kiss downwards to Jean Valjean, Tony the Jet and Christine Daaé from up on its sparkling rainbow. Sure, the film has a social conscience, largely occupying itself with the predominantly Dominican neighbourhood in New York of Washington Heights and the broad variety of social struggles that the characters’ real-life equivalents might face, but intellectual reflection is not the strength of the film.
Plot? Usnavi de le Vega (Anthony Ramos, he’s got an interesting face) is the owner of a bodega in Washington Heights. He employs his cousin, Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV). Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) is the neighbourhood matriarch and the woman who raised Usnavi after the death of his parents. Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits) runs a taxi company that employs Benny (Corey Hawkins), who has eyes for his daughter, Nina (Leslie Grace). Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega) runs a beauty salon that, among others, employs Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), the object of Usnavi’s affection. He gets cold feet whenever he ought to be asking her out.
In the Heights is an adaptation of a stage musical of the same name, with music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda and a book by Quiara Alegria Hudes. Hudes is a notable writer independently – a Pulitzer Prize winner for her play Water by the Spoonful – but In the Heights belongs to Miranda. This will be particularly evident to those who have been able to see Hamilton, the musical Miranda created after In the Heights, which has generated the sort of astronomical success that now has Australians eagerly queuing up to check out a musical about a panoply of old American dignitaries.
Musically, In the Heights might be considered a blueprint for Miranda’s later achievement. That he is talented is unquestionable – he’s got reams of the good stuff – and when In the Heights is at its best it erupts in an unbridled expression of happiness that only those unwilling to discard their cynicism will resist. But there is a short attention span to Miranda’s music – a shortcoming he didn’t manage to quite shake in Hamilton – and his attention drifts just as a song is finding its melodical feet. It can make for unsatisfying listening, and instead of whipping Spotify out to blast the soundtrack on my happy jaunt home, I struggled to remember any standouts.
The restless energy is reflected by the haphazard editing during the musical scenes, which disorients special appreciation and often obscures the impressive choreography. Director Jon M. Chu brings an enthusiasm for the material that seems to be pushing him creatively, to mixed results.
Best to ignore these quibbles. I couldn’t. I had to write this review. But if you’re going into In the Heights looking for reasons you might not enjoy it then you simply won’t enjoy it. There’s a lot to enjoy. And it can be quite fun being happy. What has Groucho Marx got to do with any of this? Nothing. I Googled “quotes about happiness.”
In the Heights opened yesterday in cinemas.