This does not strike me as an unreasonable set of expectations: give me a movie musical with lots of wide shots to show off the dancing, long takes to serve the same end, tuneful songs to drive the dancing forward, and good color saturation to make it all pop off the screen, and I'm happy. Disappointingly, In the Heights maybe does one-half of one of these things. "Tuneful" is in the ear of the beholder, but I would be inclined to say that Lin-Manuel Miranda's less-successful Broadway show (which opened in 2008, after a 2005 tryout and 2007 off-Broadway run, and ran for a little less than three years) is less-successful for a reason - the theater-nerd mix of showtunes and Miranda's mildly corny approach to rap music could be a hell of a lot smoother. Still, it has its moments. Wide shots, long takes, and saturated colors are not really up for debate: maybe you think they're good and maybe you think they don't matter, but either way, In the Heights doesn't have 'em.

The film, as adapted by Quiara Alegría Hudes from the original book for the show that she and Miranda co-wrote, is about a few days in the neighborhood of Washington Heights, Manhattan, part of the city nicknamed Little Dominican Republic. This has gotten the movie into some trouble from certain corners for casting a random mixture of light-skinned Latin American actors from across the Caribbean and even into Mexico, but I don't know that any amount of recasting would have made this feel less like a corny, touristy vision of the neighborhood, which feels otherworldly polished and clean here, with an almost laughably bourgeois idea of what urban poverty looks like (it looks like a lot of thriving, well-maintained small businesses, for a start). But that's getting us into the weeds much too early in the review.

In the Heights centers on a young man, Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), who came to the United States from the Dominican Republican as a child and now runs the bodega they left him after dying. Out of some half-articulated feeling of nostalgia, Usnavi wants to go back home, and the sort-of plot hangs on whether he will elect to do so. While this situation softly simmers, Usnavi serves as our conduit to several other Washington Heights residents: Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace), who has recently given up on college in California, and is trying very hard to hide this fact from her father Kevin (Jimmy Smits) who has leveraged his taxi business to send her there; Benny (Corey Hawkins), who runs Kevin’s dispatch board and is in love with Nina; Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), the object of Usnavi's unspoken affections, who works at the salon owned by Daniel (Daphne Rubin-Vega); Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), Usnavi's fully Americanised younger cousin; and Claudia (Olga Merediz), the childless old woman who has more or less adopted the entire block, for which reason she is lovingly nicknamed “Abuela”.

We watch for 143 minutes as these characters all just kind of hang out. I have not seen In the Heights on-stage (I have only listened to the original cast recording), but it's fairly easy to imagine this working there, with the special alchemy that happens when you're in the room where it, as it were, happens; a stageful of people bouncing about ecstatically to Miranda's peppy music feels like it might just be enough to put over what amounts to very little plot and practically no conflict (Nina's college subplot is the only thing that is "dramatic" as such). Onscreen, where the humans are reduced to flat shadows on a shiny rectangle, the lack of presence means that all that physical energy doesn't really have a way to travel over to us. And so the thing just drags, crawling across its endurance test of a running time without even pretending to have any sort of shape or momentum. Adding insult to injury, it tweaks the play's second act, creating a distended, bloated monster of an epilogue that eats up a good fifth of the film's running time, to no discernible purpose (in general, the more substantive changes to the material are all in the play's second act, and with the possible addition of a scene of a pro-DACA protest - it fucks with the story's internal chronology to set it in the late 2010s rather than the mid 2000s, but no matter - every single change makes the film worse).

So that's strike one: it's godalmighty long and slow. Strike two is that it looks pretty bad. Director Jon M. Chu - whose dance movie chops were tested and proven in Step Up 2 The Streets and Step Up 3D, and whose garish spectacle chops were tested and proven in Crazy Rich Asians (and Step Up 3D again), and yet here we are - and cinematographer Alice Brooks have committed very hard to two things that don't work in their favor: close shot scales, and washed-out colors. Truly, I am not sure if there's a single wide shot in the film that isn't depicting a group of people dancing. Which, better than no wide shots when the groups of people are dancing, but it leaves In the Heights feeling cramped and thoroughly disinterested in the world around the characters, which doesn't come across as a living environment, but a backdrop that is only sometimes seen in any particular depth or detail and almost never feels like a real place (much of the film was shot on location, and it often doesn't feel like it). The watery colors, which feel like a passive adoption of the flat digital look that's all the rage these days, less an aesthetic choice than a reflex, wipe everything down in a limp, white-grey aesthetic that just begs to pop more; there's a musical number set at a public pool with one shot that renders its gaudy turquoise tiles as a kind of muted seafoam green, and I don't know if I've ever been sadder watching a movie on our present inescapable style of "oops, we forgot to contrast-correct our raw footage" cinematography.

Strike three, I was convinced for the first ten minutes, would be that the musical numbers sucked. The show's prologue is by far the best song in it, and in this rendering, Chu and Brooks and editor Myron Kerstein have slaughtered it. A big part of this is that the prologue is mostly in direct address, Usnavi breaking the fourth wall to say hi to all of us in the theater audience, and Chu seems to have absolutely no idea what to do with this. By my count, there are no fewer than five completely different strategies: singing into the camera in a sort of abstracted non-diegetic space (certainly my favorite option of the ones given, and a quick montage in this principle of all the people buying things at the bodega is the closest the number has to good editing), dropping out of singing to deliver lines in non-musical speech, treating the music as an internal monologue that happens to be coming out of his mouth as his lips move (this is the approach that would have probably worked best), framing this as a story Usnavi is telling some children some time later, as they all sit on a beach, and in a moment of such jaw-dropping miscalculation that I almost want to praise the filmmaker's misplaced boldness, putting a random woman into one scene so Usnavi can sing to her "You must take the A-train", a frivolous little music nerd in-joke in the show that here becomes a completely inexplicable, hyper-literal bit of staging that actively works against the logic of the narrative. Hyper-literalism is a huge problem during this number, particularly when non-Usnavi characters show up and the film dutifully lurches around to show them on the bus, or whatnot; it's all very random and seems to have no clue how cinema or musicals work, and at one point we hear Usnavi's disembodied voice float into the movie singing "I serve café", and that moment more than anything else made me want to slap the shit out of Chu.

So "In the Heights" is terrible, and given that it's both the opening of the film, and the best song on the soundtrack, my hopes bottomed out pretty instantly. Happily, this is much closer to the nadir of the film than otherwise; there's one unambiguously worse number, the romantic duet "Champagne", which is clumsily blocked in a messy long tracking shot, and finds Ramos and Barrera looking actively panicked as they try to stitch their lines of the song into the claustrophobic scene. And this is not helped by Barrera's performance, easily the worst and most literally tone-deaf in a film that's not stacked with great acting (Merediz, Smits, and Rubin-Vega are the three I'd definitely keep, though I wouldn't definitely drop anyone other than Barrera).

The good news is that almost every other number is at least good, owing at least in part to the fact that these are the points where the film loosens up and gives us some god-damned wide shots, and there are four that I'd say are actively great: "96,000", the aforementioned pool number, where Chu gets to play with the bright visual chaos of a huge crowd rhythmically splashing; "Paciencia y Fe", which gives Merediz (who played the role on Broadway) an opportunity to dive through the film's richest emotions and most thoughtful history lesson, while also playing around with space in a theatrical way that never feels uncinematic; it also actually gives us some bonafide bright colors to look at. The others are "Carnaval del Barrio", which is a little dramaturgically dubious thanks to the revisions to the show, but has the best crowd shots in the film, and my very favorite, "When the Sun Goes Down", an anti-gravity dance around the side of a building that finds time to include a quick "drops falling in the wrong direction" bit that I elect to consider an homage to Step Up 3D.

The general high spirits of the musical numbers, and the sudden awareness within them that the position you set the camera relative to human bodies in movement can increase our sense of visual pleasure and narrative clarity, are enough to make In the Heights a satisfying musical extravaganza, though not an especially extravagant one. More color and fewer minutes would both help the thing out a lot. And the frame narrative is a colossal misfire that makes the entire thing feel a bit more rickety. But when it all fits together and the glorious kineticism of a street full of people gripped in the same rhythm splashes across the screen... yeah, there's something here.