Back in middle school, I watched the original West Side Story in music class. At the time, I remember liking it, though I was barely a teenager at that point. Various songs from the film still stick with me today, such as “I Feel Pretty” and “Tonight, Tonight,” as well as some cheeky references to “Stay Cool, Boy.”
When I learned early last year that the film was getting remade, the initial reaction was skepticism. After further thought, I let it go—it had been sixty years since the original. Hollywood has waited far less time for other things. Its trailer, nonetheless, didn’t inspire a whole lot of confidence. Fast forward to now, it has stellar reviews and is nominated for Best Picture. Huh? My curiosity has enticed me to see how it fares for myself.
“An adaptation of the 1957 musical, West Side Story explores forbidden love and the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, two teenage street gangs of different ethnic backgrounds.” – IMDb
Before I get into the fine details of this specific film, allow me to shed some history on a specific name: Steven Spielberg.
Sorry to Say
From the (albeit short) list of films I’ve seen directed by Mr. Spielberg, I’ve really liked a whole two of them (out of nine). They vary wildly in quality—two I really like, two are all right, and the rest are between average (or overrated) and bad. For as legendary a director as he is, it is no sure thing that I’ll care at all about his work.
Why? Frankly, I wish I knew. Something about his directing style or the films he chooses to direct. They feel… vapid, almost? Not to create the impression that he’s a soulless hack, but it’s almost this sort of buffer from reality—however slim—that takes me out of things to some degree. Given I like two out of three Indiana Jones films, this is not always the case. When it comes to things like Jurassic Park or The BFG, though, that trust falters.
So imagine my reaction when I saw that this new West Side Story was to be directed by the man I find to be very hit or miss. In short, I grew more cautious. I’m sure many others see the name and immediately breathe a sigh of relief. For as generally middling as a lot of his work I’ve seen has been for me, I can’t say I felt the same.
Actual Review (For Real)
This is turning out to be a rather intriguing “class” of Best Picture nominees. The energy behind “intriguing” is entirely sarcastic.
I did not hate West Side Story—on the contrary, I found it decently enjoyable. That’s just the thing, though; once again, the Spielberg touch has left me with but a passive-positive reaction. Competent enough on its own merits and fun in parts. Just… nothing extraordinary.
Ansel Egort as the lead, perhaps more than anything, was a fairly fatal flaw. His performance was about as passive as my interest in this going in. Always looking bored or monotone, even in moments where he’s supposed to be overwhelmed with love or sadness. Many other characters ended up leaving a far greater impression; Tony was simply there. Likely my least favorite character, and he was the lead. Sang pretty well, though!
Not much to complain about with others, however. While a cute decision to include Rita Moreno as part of the cast (she starred in the original), her character didn’t have a whole lot of purpose being in here. Otherwise, acting was solid. My particular favorites were Ariana DeBose as the fiery Anita and Mike Faist as Jets leader Riff. Both have experience acting in theater (it showed!), which added a more authentic layer of dramatics to the film.
Something I’ve become more aware of recently in films is lighting and overall presentation. Because of this, I can say that many scenes in West Side Story looked way too professionally overlit. Particularly early in the film, then sprinkled throughout, it looks like it strives more for the audience to see every wrinkle instead of realism. Comes off as bright artificiality, though this isn’t consistent throughout. Occurred more often during daytime scenes, outside the refreshing performance of “America.”
Early on, the choreography didn’t grip me. Rather, it was pretty goofy to see a gang of rough and tough guys dancing around so beautifully. It wasn’t until I got a sense of these characters and the emotional gravity of the situation that I became more engrossed. As the plot progressed, as did the build-up; the eventual promise of tragedy became harder to escape, knowing full well of its inevitability. The dancing, while technically pretty riveting, then began to have more impact as it ran through the intensity of the story.
I’ll finish this by saying that the central relationship between María and Tony here feels more… forced than I recall from the original. Hazy as my memory is, I recall the chemistry between the original leads from the ’61 film being more palpable, more believable. Here, Tony is borderline stalker-like. María instills some childlike naivety; though, again, the acting probably drags it a bit. Some of the timing of their romantic progression is also very funny. (I’d say, but it’s a massive spoiler.)
Obviously, every year will provide some questionable choices by the Academy when it comes to Best Picture. So far this year, it’s only 2 for 5 from what I’ve seen. West Side Story is a fairly faithful interpretation of the original film (and the play by extension… probably) that doesn’t suffer from a whole lot of blatant issues. These issues still exist, however, and the “Spielberg magic” didn’t do much to sway me into believing this is worthy of Best Picture.
Still fairly solid and worth the watch, outside the context of it being award-nominated.
Final Score: 6.5/10
The rating for all other films can be found at Letterboxd.
For more, check out the March of the Movies Archive!
Thank you for your time. Have a great timezone.