West Side Story (2021)
West Side Story (2021)

Genre: Romantic Drama and Musical Running Time: 2 hrs. 36 min.

Release Date: December 10th, 2021 MPAA Rating: PG-13

Director: Steven Spielberg Actors: Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Rita Moreno, Corey Stoll, Brian d’Arcy James, Josh Andres Rivera

 


 

W

hen the New York Housing Authority starts leveling the slums to make way for new construction, the escalating demolition pits two rival gangs against each other over dwindling terrain. The Jets scurry about the ruins, snapping their fingers, stepping rhythmically, and whistling communications, orchestrating the stealing of paint to mar a mural representing their Puerto Rican opponents, the Sharks. This leads to a skirmish that results in vengeful disfigurement, bruised faces, and the arrival of the police – represented by Officer Krupke (Brian d’Arcy James) and Lieutenant Schrank (Corey Stoll).

Strangely, the sets, props, clothing, and styling of the characters are so realistic that it’s immediately discordant when the gang members start to dance. On the stage and in the previous theatrical adaptation, the suspension of disbelief was inherent and easy, especially when the visuals leaned toward fantasy (or the imaginary); but here, the look is so authentic that it’s difficult to become fully wrapped up in the levity and flamboyancy of song and dance. And it’s even more incongruous when blood and violence are steeped in realism, yet reactions and behaviors are not.

Additionally (though they’re not new concepts), the immigration woes of the time (white vs. brown and us vs. them attitudes) take on a more potent significance – and one that is perhaps more topical than ever. A song such as “America” poses a bitterer cynicism, revealing how little the general lack of opportunities and outright racism have changed for minorities; with all the attention to details, the largely updated delivery of dialogue, and sincerer dispositions, this certainly feels like a 2021 modernization, regardless of the ‘50s period. “We’re all American, right?”

Director Steven Spielberg’s take on this classic musical is undoubtedly a technical marvel, boasting a polish in its cinematography and choreography. It definitely isn’t deficient in its visual construction and design. But again, with all its refinements comes a curiously unwelcome seriousness; a school sponsored dance social no longer fits with the genuinely hateful participants, while the “Gee, Officer Krupke” number fizzles when a sensible resolution to detained delinquents isn’t meant to be found. And even Anybodys’ role has become more veritable in an unnecessary way. Toward the finale, a gang-rape inches ever closer to coming to fruition, further merging stark realism with what had just minutes before been a musical number; regardless of the play’s edgier focus on social predicaments (ahead of its time upon its original release), the pervasive aura of legitimacy makes this a grave subject in the midst of a formulaic romance.

Ultimately, as Jets’ leader Riff (Mike Faist) plans a final rumble against Sharks’ boss Bernardo (David Alvarez) to settle their territorial dispute, the former Jet Tony (Ansel Elgort) – who is futilely attempting to go straight – falls in love with Bernardo’s sister Maria (Rachel Zegler, by far the most impressive singer of the bunch). And since they’re of mismatched ethnicities, they become unavoidably and disastrously mixed up in the feudal warfare. The story, an urban twist on “Romeo and Juliet,” remains amusing (familiar as it is), as do the catchy tunes (the “Tonight” duet and its later quintet are still the best songs), frequently embellished by fast, energetic, splashy dance routines. And the central romance isn’t without its emotional moments. But despite the opportunity to expose younger audiences to the Jerome Robbins/Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim material, or to present a fresh adaptation for longtime fans, it will be nearly impossible for it to emerge from the shadows of its multiple-Oscar-winning predecessor. Plus, with all the amplifications in severity, this considerably darker tragedy, dwelling on an inescapable circle of hostility and bloodshed, is measurably less fun.

– Mike Massie

  • 6/10