Movies · Reviews

Steven Spielberg’s Spectacular ‘West Side Story’ Fails in the Story Department

Some of the casting decisions make this version of the musical better than the 1961 original, and some of the casting decisions make it worse.
West Side Story New Hollywood Musicals
20th Century Studios
By  · Published on December 3rd, 2021

The best thing Steven Spielberg could have done with West Side Story is cast Latinx actors as the musical’s Puerto Rican characters. Not just for representation-sake either. Today, as opposed to 60 years ago when the previous feature film adaptation of the show was made, casting correctly with regards to race is kind of a given. Specifically, though, the choices of Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, and Rachel Zegler as Anita, Bernardo, and Maria make for the greatest parts of the 2021 film version.

Unfortunately, the casting of this cinematic revival isn’t entirely successful. In fact, some of the casting decisions are among the worst elements of the new adaptation. One in particular even ruins the movie as a whole: Ansel Elgort appears in the lead role of Tony, and he’s lacking in personality, charisma, and expression. He gives the audience nothing to hold onto or care about with the character, and his shortcomings extend to his chemistry with Zegler, which hurts the romantic narrative at the core of West Side Story.

Set in the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the late 1950s, the musical famously updates Romeo and Juliet (or, for the ancients crowd, Pyramus and Thisbe) for a tale of star-crossed lovers from opposing sides in a gang war. Tony is an ex-member of the Jets, a white-pride group of young delinquents; he’s trying to improve his life following a two-year stint in Sing Sing for almost killing another boy. Maria is the little sister of Bernardo, a hot-headed boxer who commands an assemblage of Puerto Rican locals that goes by the name the Sharks. She’s 18 now and ready to prove herself an adult in both mind and heart.

Tony and Maria meet at a neighborhood dance, and I guess it’s love at first sight — sure, she’s adorable, and he’s, well, intriguingly dense — but their first encounter is too rushed and incoherent for it to be the spark that changes the course of lives and plotlines. The problem with the scene is not just with Elgort’s dramatic impotence. There’s a dazzling dance sequence happening at the same time his eyes lock with hers, and even more distracting is the onslaught of lens flares eclipsing everything else in the frame.

The couple’s interest in each other immediately provides a disapproving Bernardo with a reason to agree to a rumble with the Jets. He mostly just wants to fight Tony. The Jets, as led by the scrappy but belligerent Riff (Mike Faist), are bent on keeping the Sharks out of their turf. They claim it has nothing to do with race, though, just good old American “we were here first” xenophobia. The Jets turn out to be rapists, too, which has always been a problem for a musical that regards the gang so gleefully through song and dance.

It’s also difficult to buy Faist in the role of Riff, though that’s surely not to be as universal an opinion as is the distaste for Elgort’s Tony. At least Faist is an amazing performer — like many of the supporting players in the movie, he is best known as a prominent stage actor — and a joy to watch on screen. He just doesn’t quite fit the part, nor the tone of this adaptation, especially in scenes opposite Elgort, where he seems comparatively extra, as well as when he’s supposed to be a tough guy yet comes across as a yappy little dog instead.

There is so little to invest in on the side of the Jets, who are like kids playing gangster while defending their sandlot. And that’s a shame given how long West Side Story focuses on them. Plus, the attempt at new choreography (courtesy of Justin Peck) isn’t fresh or different enough in their numbers to keep the fans from wanting Jerome Robbins’ moves from the original Broadway and film versions. The re-set performance of “Gee, Officer Krupke” looks like a lot of fun, for what that’s worth.

Meanwhile, everything involving Maria, Bernardo, and his girlfriend, Anita, is fabulously compelling. On her own, and particularly in scenes with Elgort, Zegler is bright but tender in her portrayal. She can appear too childlike at times, for better and worse as far as the central love story goes. In her scenes with Alvarez and DeBose, however, the three of them have a believably affecting dynamic as family, as roommates, and as cultural-societal kin. Their work is grounded within the world of West Side Story, even when — or especially when — they break into song. I could have watched a whole movie about them just interacting in their apartment.

DeBose makes the biggest impression of all. There’s a reason why the role of Anita has generated the most awards attention for stage and screen productions of West Side Story. She has the best songs, especially as supplements to her character development, the flashiest musical numbers, and the most emotionally conflicted arc — in this version, she may be the only one with genuine emotion at all. And DeBose is sure to come away from the experience again with its greatest legacy as well. Perhaps even one day, she’ll appear in another role, earnestly and still masterfully, in another West Side Story remake, as the 1961 movie’s Anita, Rita Moreno, does here.

If only DeBose and the other excellent actors were enough to make this a worthy effort all around. I definitely wouldn’t discourage anyone from watching it and might even recommend seeing it for some of the performances and some of the musical numbers (you still can’t go wrong with Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s tunes) and some of the cinematography by Janusz Kamiński — when it’s not a headache-inducing blitz of lens flares, the visuals are scrumptiously vintage-looking. (In his first musical, Spielberg goes for such a retro aesthetic, it’s as drenched in nostalgia as is something like Ghostbusters: Afterlife.)

But we can’t rate West Side Story as a musical revue. There is a movie with an overarching story driving all other components, and it’s terribly insufficient as such. Without magnetic leads — or at least a better Tony — their romance has no weight. And without that weight, the viewer has no reason to care what happens to them; and without that concern, the rest of the movie falls flat. Particularly, the ending fizzles instead of being as powerful as it’s written to be and has been in past incarnations going back thousands of years.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.