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'West Side Story' review: Spielberg's musical adaptation doesn't have the spark

Courtesy of 20th Century Studios


Since the creation of the modern day blockbuster, nobody has done it like Steven Spielberg. Aside from the occasional “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” blemish, Spielberg has stood at the forefront of cinematic ingenuity, from “ET,” “Jaws” and later works “Catch Me If You Can” and “Reader Player One,” he’s one of, if not, the best living filmmaker today. So the immediate knee jerk reaction when you hear his name attached to an adaptation of “West Side Story,” the director’s first musical, is not to bet against him. Especially as he’s made the correct decision in casting Latinx actors to play the film’s Puerto Rican characters whereas 60 years ago that was considered taboo. Ariana DeBose, David Alverez, and Rachel Zegler as Anita, Bernado and Maria aren’t the problem with Spielberg’s sweeping but empty “West Side Story.” Instead, “West Side Story” is too artificial and sanitized for its good, a film where romance and emotion get away from a seasoned filmmaker as he toys with conventions. Some moments rise to the occasion, most come away bruised.

Stepping into the enormous role of Tony, Ansel Elgort is caught between a rock and a hard place. The charm, chemistry and romantic presences of playing opposite Zelger’s gorgeous and heartbreaking Maria never manifests for the “Baby Driver” actor. The trance both share after dueting on a balcony in the Upper West Side of Manhattan doesn’t land and worse, it hits a wall. No matter how much compassion and flavor they try conjuring in their scenes together, the heart of “West Side Story,” aka the primary love story, leaves the film dehydrated. This asks the remainder of the cast, including an excellent turn from Tony nominee Mike Faist as Riff, to shoulder the load. It results in a few stirring rumbles and classic Speilbergian troupes, but coming off a year that included the high energy blitz of “In The Heights” and “Tick, tick…Boom!” it leaves minimal room for the director’s vision to stand out.

Adapted by Tony Kusher, “West Side Story” takes place in the late 1950s and, save for a lyrical tweak or two, keeps the main gist of the “Romeo and Juliet” inspired musical intact. That of a tale of two star-crossed lovers caught in the middle of a raging gang/turf war between the Jets, a group of white males angry at the gentrification of their city; and the Sharks, an assembly of Puerto Rican locals unafraid to fight back. Tony is an ex-member of the Jets who recently served a stint in Sing Sing for almost beating a kid to death and Maria is the little sister of Bernado, the hot-headed boxer and leader of the Sharks outfit. None of this hostility stops Tony and Maria from locking eyes at the neighborhood mixer where one of the movie’s best dance sequences comes alive, however, it also becomes a distraction for the romantic courtship which is cut short by the chaos. For a movie that runs almost three hours, Speilberg, along with editors Sarah Broshar and Micheal Kahn find hilarious methods of not allowing the movie to breathe. (The less said about the awkward lens flares practically covering everyone's faces in this scene, the better).

Of course, the harmless romance provides incentive for Bernado’s agreement to rumble with the Jets (he wants to tussle with Tony despite the group being led with tenacity and wise-cracking energy by Riff). As Riff, Faist is an incredible performer who showcases wonderful dextrixty and a free-flowing attitude the movie desperately needs. Alas, he alone can’t salvage questionable transitions and the reemerging moral conundrum/debate on portraying the Jets in a favorable light considering they’re, uh, rapists.

It’s a bummer Kushner’s screenplay spends so much vigor on the Jets as they maneuver around the city slinging xenophobic jargon. Justin Peck tries infusing new choreography into the mix, but even his rendition of “Gee, Officer Krumpke,” which should have been a barn-stomping hoedown, comes and goes with a whimper. Nothing feels inventive or fresh enough to make a case for its inclusion. For what it’s worth, the rumble scene is an excellent 20-minute sequence that arrives about two hours into the movie.

Elsewhere, the magnificent Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the 1961 classic, is called up to bat playing drug-store shopkeeper Valentina and delivers a soothing rendition of “Somewhere;” DeBose, a scene stealer in her two bigger projects “The Prom” and “Schmigadoon!,” finds the career making role she deserves; Zegler is just getting started; and Alvarez flexes hard. Collectively they all ebb and flow through Leonard Berstein and Stephen Sondheim’s infectious tunes, bringing conviction and appreciation for the words despite the film around them coming up short. The movie needs a better Tony, or at least more energetic numbers to overcome a lackluster Tony. This won’t be the last time we see “West Side Story” remade for the big screen and when that time comes, I hope it can find the right cinematic balance and create movie magic.

Grade: C

WEST SIDE STORY opens in theaters Friday, December 10th.


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