West Side Story (2021)
First screened in December 2021
Director: Steven Spielberg. Cast: Rachel Zegler, Ansel Elgort, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Rita Moreno, Josh Andrés Rivera, Brian d'Arcy James, Corey Stoll, Iris Menas, Paloma Garcia-Lee. Screenplay: Tony Kushner (based on the 1957 musical, book by Arthur Laurents).

Photo © 2021 20th Century Studios
The new West Side Story is such a fundamentally sound, technically proficient, thoughtfully considered version of a classic show that I'm dejected not to have responded more deeply, either to its craftsmanship or its emotional claims. There's plenty to be said in its favor, especially in the opening sequence, which stakes its own authoritative path through the show's unforgettable prelude, rendered so iconographically in the prior, justly legendary film. Today's West Side Story summons a new, unsettling level of physical and atmospheric aggression. It is still proudly a musical, stylized in how it conveys story through gesture, blocking, and sound, but the gangsters' movements through the streets and their taunting approaches to strangers and to each other assert a plausible ambience of imminent or ever-present violence. In some swift, clean strokes, the movie also places a historical frame around this particular chapter of gangs-of-New-York history and myth, candidly contextualizing the Jets' white cult of injured pride and resentful scapegoating. Mike Faist's body language and line readings in these expository scenes quickly make Riff, a character I've never thought much about, into a gripping point of focus, which he will remain throughout. By this point in the film, I'm already feeling grateful to Spielberg and especially to Kushner, even if I'm a little disoriented by the blend of era- and location-specific verisimilitude with genre-linked, CGI-abetted abstraction.

Less fortunately, that kind of not-quite-this-but-not-quite-that feeling prevailed for me through a lot of this West Side Story, which makes significant gestures toward updating the story and several staunch ones toward preserving it as is. The artists show a genuine investment in cultural specificity and enriched psychological grounding but still hustle characters through crazy pivots and implausible conceits because the piece as written and as canonized demands them. There are a lot of backstories to consider, not always harmoniously. Some trace back to New York City in the 1950s, and earlier, asking us to think sociologically about Then and, refractively, about Now. Some trace back to "Hey, it's West Side Story, you signed up for this," which itself always depended on a certain measure of "Hey, it's Romeo and Juliet, you know the drill."

Honestly, I did know what I very eagerly signed up for. I don't mind—i even actively like—a movie that issues me some parallel yet disparate invitations and challenges. But I think there are palpable stresses in this movie linked to how hard it's stretching to fill so many mandates. The film concedes that there are lingering problems with this piece that have long called for friendly amendment while just as often re-presenting West Side Story as a vaunted chapter in the American Musical Gospel and counting on us to be faithful adherents. Meanwhile, there's a whole other field of constant calculations transpiring, by which the movie studiously avoids duplicating the indelible templates offered by Jerome Robbins, Robert Wise, and their famous collaborators but also doesn't want to revise purely for revision's sake.

If you want an emblem of a movie that feels dedicated and professional but also a bit off-balance, you could do worse than any two-shot of our headline lovers, María and Tony. They are played by tiny, big-eyed, tuneful newcomer Rachel Zegler and gargantuan, nearly featureless Ansel Elgort, who does his committed best with the songs but struggles more to project any interior life. Zegler gets further toward that goal, and she feels of the age María is meant to be while also fulfilling the lofty technique requirements of the score. But I kept waiting patiently for any big hit of charisma from either of them, cast as kids who have to elicit instant infatuation, from each other and from us. Instead, as soon as they cross paths, and especially when juxtaposed in a frame, you fear for her safety, not because Tony is threatening but because this two-liter bottle of heavy cream might smoosh her. It's never, ever clear what Tony and María see in each other, or why they remain so steadfast amid colossal, increasingly bloody deterrents. Their initial spotting of each other at the gymnasium dance is one scene Spielberg hasn't devised a way to execute near the level of the '61 version. As the characters' predicaments and affects become more extreme, these greenish performers come closer and closer to melodramatic indicating, rather than polished acting.

You never have to wait long in West Side Story for another good visual idea (or, to nobody's surprise, for renewed evidence of the show's core strengths). One seductive, eloquent image is the creepy, bird's-eye convergence of long, fingerlike, blue-black shadows as the Jets and Sharks meet up for a catastrophic square-off. That event is staged here inside a barren and colorless warehouse for sidewalk and roadway salt. That location and its grim color story clarify the barrenness of whatever "victory" might look like for either side, even as the characters stay convinced of the highest of high stakes and act accordingly. Framing and camera movement are expressive throughout, and Spielberg and Janusz Kamiński, his cinematographer of nearly 30 years' standing, do meticulous jobs of showcasing individual and collective movements, especially but not only in the dance numbers. The majority of the time, they do so without sapping the movie of energy that feels spontaneous, especially when the supporting cast dominates the action.

I don't love every visual choice, including the more literal ones: the mass grave of mannequins behind the store where María works, say, or the framing of her fire escape as a series of unbreachable cages, even as she and Tony reach out to each other in hopeful song. Moreover, what Kamiński gets right in camera behavior and placement I'm afraid he often loses in palette and actual light. I'm hardly alone in lamenting his long-gone versatility or in wishing he and Spielberg would test out other partners. His abiding affection for blue and white, his embrace of blinding glares, and his fetish for large walls of blown-out light are not just overfamiliar but not particularly appealing, at least to these eyes, even in a movie that has other agendas than beauty alone. Certainly this harsh style of photography is not ideal for easing the blend of CGI and practical elements that prevail in some of West Side Story's mise-en-scène, especially the wider we go. The setting looks flimsiest whenever we're dropped among the halfway-demolished buildings where the Jets and Sharks most forcefully butt heads, and worse. This is the environment for some of the story's most crucial plot turns and emotional climaxes, so ideally, you don't want the surrounds to be an unresolved, synthetic distraction.

Even when the camera is well-situated from technical standpoints, I wasn't always sure it worked in optimal service to the score. The "America" number, ambitiously reconfigured from a nighttime rooftop to a sprawling public square in San Juan Hill at high noon, is a major set-piece for all the craft departments. Happily, it's hard to argue with the precision and athleticism of the dancing, led in this case by Ariana DeBose's Anita. But there's so much verbal and character detail in Stephen Sondheim's lyrics, and such a fluctuating mix of sarcasm and sincerity as Anita and others work through their embattled affections for two homes that are no longer or not yet homes: Puerto Rico and New York. All that nuance felt a little eroded for me by the proficient styling of this sequence as a raise-the-roof powerhouse, opting frequently for wide angles to promote the choreography but visually and sonically losing some of what the characters are intimating verbally. Spielberg's sequence, where everything is in all caps, is bigger than Robbins's and Wise's, but theirs lands more powerfully, the choreography exploding amid backdrops and costumes that aren't competing for attention. The earlier film is more confident, too, of when to cut to someone—usually Rita Moreno—for a dose of witty, full-bodied phrasing or distinctive personality.

Ariana DeBose, smashing in long shots and less steady in closeups, never ingratiates herself or settles into character as fully as Moreno did (an Olympic-level standard, to be clear). I think we badly need that no-questions-asked attachment to Anita in place by midfilm, because a huge ratio of what the character endures and of how she reacts in the show's back end is dizzyingly paced and tortuously plotted. DeBose doesn't distill feelings as purely as Moreno did but also doesn't etch emotion at the level of fine detail to which her acting choices and camera framings seem to aspire. I left her climactic sequences feeling this is an awfully hard and almost unfair part (why isn't she telling María to just. FUCK. OFF!), whereas Moreno, in seamless synchronicity with her photography, her choreography, her directors, and her flared lilac dress, convinces you easily and always that it's the role of a lifetime.

This happened to me more than once during the new West Side Story: a reflex to question or downgrade elements of the show, despite this creative team's easily understandable impulse to embrace and elevate it, even as they experiment with it. If you establish the level of social context that Kushner so quickly and wisely furnishes from the outset, and you've already framed the Jets' racial grievances and curdled self-pity as vividly as this movie does, I'm not convinced you need or even want the "Officer Krupke" number, which felt charmless, busy, and easily expendable. I now see the wisdom of the 1961 film's re-placement of "I Feel Pretty" at an earlier, emotionally undemanding juncture, though I appreciate, too, the admirable risk, ironic to the point of soulsickness, that the original show takes by offering us this meringue after showing us two murders. But for the latter strategy to work, I think the original team knew that the audience at least needs the release of an intervening intermission. In this movie's hands, the whiplash from carnage to confection felt like too much to ask. A more pitiless, emboldened director might have cut "I Feel Pretty" outright.

I feel odd and out-of-character wishing for pitilessness in a show this full of heart, brought to us by artists who clearly love it—not so much as to avoid posing questions, which this version clearly does, but maybe not enough questions. I understand this West Side Story as a reconsideration of a beloved property, and as a spirited, course-correcting, even penitent welcome to Puerto Rican and broadly Hispanophone audiences who have been solicited but also rebuffed by this text for half a century. This movie emanates levels of care and creative autonomy, such that it feels wrong to pigeonhole it as just a "version" of a story, subordinated or reactive to those that came before. But I don't really believe that this is the story anyone would build from the ground up if they wanted to engage these themes and experiences substantively in 2021.

The shrewd textual and political interventions often made me hungry for more drastic ones, maybe even some that own up to how few likable or admirable characters exist in this piece; even those few eventually make cruel or reckless choices that cancel a lot of sympathy. If urban violence, ethnic supremacies, and cycles of demonizing and retaliation are as ugly and acidic as West Side Story admits in its own way, I wonder what I might learn from a production that keeps the levels of romantic sentiment to an even tighter minimum. If you're going to keep the numbers that feel most nostalgic or naïve, make them earn their keep, and allow the actors in those scenes (or in others) to play the emotions their characters might actually feel in those situations. Think, for example, about a Tony and María who know they're probably not right for each other, or who recognize they have no idea yet if they're right for each other, or who resent how quickly their puppy love has been colonized and ruined by everybody else's bullshit bloodlust. Or consider all the guilt, disgust, and ambivalence María must wake up with The Morning After (you know which one), and imagine a production that ends not with a desperate sprint toward a happy ending but on her desperation to flee the scene and punish herself, even if she'll now be chained forever to her accomplice in truly insulting adolescent narcissism. Blinkered adoration, with each lover idealizing themselves and the other, each offered to the audience as dewy and unconditionally loyal, and then tragically ennobled... well, as a human story or as a textual spine, that train is only going to get so far, and it's doomed to miss a lot of important scenery along the way. That's especially true when, to his credit, Kushner has provisioned Tony with a troubling and particular past. It wouldn't be fair to imply that West Side Story is untroubled in its view of Tony and of young, dumb love as events unfold. But it does, I think, pull back from the levels of skepticism it previously invited, and which might have illuminated the tale in a truly new way.

As much as I appreciated the new film's ostensibly pointed, very Kushnery reminder that all this rivalry and semi-shared dispossession between Puerto Rican immigrants and poor whites was exacerbated so as to gift New York City with the Lincoln Center arts campus, I think the movie only works if you fundamentally want the Lincoln Center arts campus, and fundamentally want this story to survive as an institution of its genre, its country, and its city. Fair enough to play to that audience! Why make a West Side Story for people who are skeptical of it? But if we start from the premise that this West Side Story wants us to meditate on paradox and difficulty, and if you're a viewer like me who already found the film more rousing intellectually than emotionally, much that feels off through the long middle—even as much else feels right—feels more off at the end. So much in West Side Story is bigger, more important, and more plausible than its love story (also true, incidentally, of Romeo and Juliet), but there the love story sits, eating up oxygen, bending the narrative to its over-scaled will. Spielberg's and Kushner's West Side Story asks us more questions than Robbins's and Wise's did, but once you start answering those asks and weighing possible answers, a lot of this show feels dubiously pretty. If you're watching it in a contemporary city that is tangibly circling several drains at once, propelled downward by the current, monstrous iterations of all the things West Side Story is about without quite being about, the disjoin between what's on screen and what's outside is really tough to resolve.

But there's one big exception, as this smart and resilient if not always satisfying film reaches its close. The words, sounds, and tones of "Somewhere," recast here as a quieter, more defeated lament in a voice characterized by strength and fragility—as a song, then, not of innocence but of experience—is a coup the movie needs and earns. It's sad, and it should be sad. Not histrionically sad, in ways that shake rafters; sad like an actual, desolate epiphany. Without underselling the talent and training involved, it's also a moment where the movie invests clearly in emotion, even mixed emotion, over opulent virtuosity. I received this performance of "Somewhere" in a totally modern key: as an expression of how small and precarious our stentorian hopes of both the distant and the recent pasts now feel, even as we can't yet renounce them. Then again, it's clear that the singing character very likely felt just that way more than six decades ago: before Trump, before Lincoln Center, before there were even 50 states. In this instance, an assiduously if unevenly ambidextrous West Side Story tries yet again to be multiple things at once, and in a breathy, breathtaking way, it succeeds. Grade: B

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture
Best Director: Steven Spielberg
Best Supporting Actress: Ariana DeBose
Best Cinematography: Janusz Kaminski
Best Production Design: Adam Stockhausen; Rena DeAngelo
Best Costume Design: Paul Tazewell
Best Sound: Tod A. Maitland, Gary Rydstrom, Brian Chumney, Andy Nelson, Shawn Murphy

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture (Musical/Comedy)
Best Director: Steven Spielberg
Best Actress (Musical/Comedy): Rachel Zegler
Best Supporting Actress: Ariana DeBose

Other Awards:
Screen Actors Guild Award: Best Supporting Actress (DeBose)
New York Film Critics Circle: Best Cinematography
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Supporting Actress (DeBose)
National Board of Review: Best Actress (Zegler)
British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best Supporting Actress (DeBose); Best Casting (Cindy Tolan)

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