Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Film Review: West Side Story (2021)


Sexuality/Nudity Mature
Violence Mature
Vulgarity Acceptable
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Mature

Readers of this blog know that I love Steven Spielberg.  But I was baffled by his choice to do a remake of the much acclaimed and beloved West Side Story.  My best guess was that this was a kind of "bucket list" item for him, to take a stab at the one of the greatest movie musicals.

So how does he fair in this experiment?

Visually, the movie is stunning.  It's the script that almost sinks the entire project.

For those unfamiliar, West Side Story takes place in the middle of the 20th century in New York.  There are two rival gangs: the Puerto Rican "Sharks" and the white "Jets" who are fighting over the streets.  As tensions build, one of the founding Jets Tony (Ansel Elgort) falls in love with Maria (Rachel Zegler), who is the sister of the leader of the Sharks Bernardo (David Alvarez ). Things go from dramatic to tragic when Bernardo rumbles with Tony's best friend Riff (Mike Faist) which leads to the sad resolution to the story.

What elevates West Side Story as a musical is the music.  Leonard Bernstein's iconic songs and score capture the vibrance, romance, and chaos of the human heart while staking its claim in its own unique sound.  There is no other musical that sounds like West Side Story.  Spielberg was wise to not touch the score, but let Bernstein's music show itself off to a new generation.

As I said, Spielberg has not lost a beat when it comes to visual storytelling.  The first few minutes not only give a feeling of the geography and the squalor, but you get a strong sense of the look and tone of the entire film.  I'm not a fan of the decision to keep the colors more muted and desaturated, but Spielberg uses this to great effect when he wants to fill you with ecstatic feeling by over-saturating the colors during scenes like when Bernardo's girlfriend Anita (Ariana DeBose) sings "America."  The choreography is also utterly fantastic.  (on a random note, I hate how they foley in the sounds of the feet during the choreography.  It is incredibly distracting). 

The scene where Tony and Maria meet is particularly effective.  In the original, the two enter a dream-like sequence where the world disappears.  Spielberg opted not to do this and instead go for a more realistic interpretation.  However, his scene loses none of the ecstatic romance.  His use of light and shadow expertly sets the emotional tone of love at first sight.

I have to say as well that some of the performances are quite excellent.  The biggest surprise for me was Elgort's Tony.  Based on the trailers, I was incredibly skeptical that he could pull off this iconic role.  I was not a fan of his, especially in movies like Baby Driver, where he exuded almost no charm or charisma.  However, I was completely wrong.  Elgort might be the best part of the movie.  He his charismatic, charming, and incredibly likable.  He does this while holding back strong masculine power mixed with a little bit of danger.  

Zegler is also very good, moving from innocence to tragic wisdom.  The two of them have wonderful chemistry, as do DeBose and Alvarez.  DeBose recently won an Oscar for this role, and it is well deserved as she does an amazing job of taking us on Anita's journey from confident optimism to utter despair.  Rita Morena plays a new character Valentina in place of "Doc" from the original.  This is more than a cameo from an original cast member.  She brings a quiet dignity to the part with a strong moral center.  However, Faist's Riff is nothing to write home about.  He never pops off the screen the way the others do.  In fact, I have trouble even picturing his face.

So how could the script bring all of this down?

The biggest problem is that Tony Kushner's screenplay insists on "correcting" the original.  Movies made in the past are of their time.  They do not carry with it our modern sensibilities.  Kushner sees this as a problem.  But the mixing does not work in the framework of the original story.  It reminds me of that episode of The Simpsons when Stan Lee jammed a Hulk action figure into Database's Batmobile, destroying it.  

Database:  AHHHH you broke my Batmobile!

Stan Lee: Broke or made it better?

That is essentially what Kushner does to West Side Story.

To be fair, there are some things that are improvements.  He gives Tony a more dramatic backstory for not wanting to be a part of the fighting anymore.  This adds some interesting layers of depth.  He also does an excellent job of fleshing out Chino (Josh Andres Rivera) to make him an incredibly intersting foil to Tony.

Other than that, the script is almost completely off of the rails.

In the original, the Jets and the Sharks are reckless youths, prone to pointless violence.  However, you are invited to identify with them in their exuberant youth.  That's why the original begins with a lengthy wordless sequence where we see members of each gang mess with each other in equal measure.  This one begins instead with the Jets acquiring paint to perform a racist hate crime on the Puerto Rican flag.  When the Sharks arrive, they are not portrayed as equal hooligans.  Instead, the people of the neighborhood clap for them as their defenders.

This completely breaks the movie.

Due to the songs in the musical, we spend way more time with the Jets than the Sharks.  We are meant to feel some measure of connection to them.  To be sure, they are racists towards the Puerto Ricans in all the versions of the musical.  But the original script was smart enough to let cumulative effect of their words and actions redound to the final tragedy so that you were able to follow their emotional journey down to the bottom.  But if from the beginning they are the villains, it becomes impossible to really enjoy numbers like "When You're A Jet" or "Officer Krupke."  In fact, the original "When You're a Jet" is staged in a way that you feel the links of brotherhood and camaraderie so that you see the appeal of joining this wayward gang.  In the modern version, the Jets go around bullying the locals so that the song is an anthem of a hate group.

The script constantly does these "improvements."  The character of Anybodys (Iris Menas) was originally a tomboy who wanted into the gang.  Kushner uses her as a means to preach about modern issues of sexual identity.  The original does not preclude these interpretations, but Kushner thinks that we need to be TOLD these things because we are too stupid to see those possibilities.  Another example comes towards the end when Anita gets attacked by the Jets.  In the original, this is where you see the complete degeneration of the likable Jets into beastial behavior so that Doc has to shock them into sanity.  In the new version, Kushner has Valentina lose all subtlety, telling the Jets "You've grown into rapists."  It's not that the line isn't true, its that Kushner thinks that we missed this point in the original and has to spell it out for us like children.

The movie is also oddly and specifically anti-American.  While the original shows the ugliness of life in the big city and also the country's hope and promise, it allowed you to make up your own mind as to what conclusion to draw.  Instead, with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, Anita concludes her arc by saying "Yo no soy Americana.  Yo Soy Puertorriquena."  This is a complete rejection of the idea of America and an acceptance of racial devisions.  To be sure, the line is spoken just after she was attacked just for being Puerto Rican.  But Kushner uses this as an opportunity to indite the whole of America.

Here's the thing: I have a tendency to excuse Spielberg and lay all the blame on Kushner.  After all, the visual storytelling of this movie is fantastic.   But I have to remind myself that Spielberg is not a work-for-hire director who gets pushed around by studio interests.  All the things in this movie are there because he chose for them to be in there, including the elements of the script that are terrible.  

And that is a shame, because if the script had not insisted on talking down to its audience, Spielberg could have pulled off the near-impossible task of matching the quality of the original.

But the experiment ends as tragically as Tony and Maria's romance.

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