Movie Review: West Side Story

I have more mixed feelings about this movie than any other this year. And of all the films that got big buzz coming out in 2021, this was the one I was the least excited to see. I’m not the biggest fan of musicals (although In the Heights is one of my favorite pictures this year), and I wasn’t a big fan of the original West Side Story. Part of the problem with the 1961 version was that I saw it when I was 12-years-old. I had already seen Grease and loved it, so when the gangs snapped their fingers on the screen I wondered – what the hell is this? With this new version, the gangs certainly pack more of a punch (although you’ve got to wonder about a group of guys that we’re celebrating with such clever songs and dance numbers, who turn out to be racists and rapists).

Speaking of celebrating clever songs, what a lovely tribute (even if accidental) to Steven Sondheim, who passed away weeks before this was released. At an event with Rita Moreno in L.A., she said that Sondheim saw and loved this. And that made me wonder – why did Steven Spielberg even want to tackle this? He basically made the same movie (with some interesting added backstory). Perhaps he thought – I had success working with sharks before (I’m here all week, folks). Perhaps he just wanted to add a musical to his body of work. 

Let’s discuss the cast. It was an interesting touch to cast trans actor Iris Menas as Anybodys. My wife didn’t care for that character, but I thought it worked as a good way to update the story (and of course, it checks off the boxes to make the cancel culture crowd happy; after all, Lin-Manual Miranda unfairly took heat for In the Heights).

Everyone will love Rito Moreno in this. It wasn’t just a cameo, it was a nice supporting role (and they have her sing Maria’s “Somewhere” and it works wonderfully). 

There were two casting choices that didn’t work. Ansel Elgort (Baby Driver, The Fault in OurStars) as Tony. There were a few scenes where he looked like a young Brando. And could act tough better than I thought he would. Yet too many times he didn’t have the charm, and there was a lack of chemistry with Maria (Rachel Zegler).

Riff, the leader of the Jets (played by Broadway actor Mike Faist), can also sometimes pull off the tough guy act, but mostly just sounds like a yappy little dog at your ankle. The few times he wants to mix it up with Bernardo (David Alvarez), I just don’t buy it. All of his dramatic interactions with Tony worked, though.

Speaking of Bernardo – Alvarez does an amazing job with the dances and the character. I felt like he’s a boxer that could mess up anyone, and at the same time, when he’s in his apartment with his girlfriend and sister…we loved his character. Even when he tries to set up his smart, nerdy friend Chino (Josh Andres Rivera) with his innocent sister, you’ll have a big smile on your face.

His girlfriend of course, is Anita. Broadway actress/dancer Ariana DeBose plays her brilliantly. Her dance sequence to “America” is flat out amazing. The way she twirls her dress, the facial expressions. Later there’s a scene where she angrily has to bark at Maria “You can never ask me that!” I still tear up just thinking about that moment. And as much as I had sequels and prequels, I’d love a prequel with Alzarez and DeBose playing these characters upon their first arrival to New York. But I digress.

I had problems with the casting of Maria. Don’t get me wrong, newcomer Rachel Zegler sings like an angel, but she looks like she’s 12. So when she approaches Tony at a school dance (and he’s 27-years-old in real life), it’s creepy. Even more creepy when they’re in bed together.

I only liked half the songs in the original West Side Story, and it’s great that those songs I loved were done justice here. The “I Feel Pretty” number is top notch. At an event with Zegler, she mentioned the spraying of the Windex on the mirror of the department store being her favorite moment. It’s funny, because my wife and I had talked about how clever we thought that was on the way home from the first viewing of this (side note: when we saw it a second time we thought we’d be bored with the two and a half hour production, but we weren’t).

The “Gee, Officer Krumpke” number feels real fresh, as the Jets tear up a police station they’re in for interrogation about the big upcoming rumble. 

When that rumble takes place, it’s well done, and in the fight, Bernardo reminded me of the first time I saw actor Esai Morales in Bad Boys in 1983. I sure hope Alvarez has an equally successful career in Hollywood. He recently said he had given up on acting for years, and was hiking in a jungle in Mexico when he got a text about auditioning for this part.

I think the younger generation is going to find this musical to be a bit corny. As great as the Leonard Bernstein music is, it’s for a different generation. I’m guessing this will make a killing at the box office, though. 

My wife and I were both a tad disappointed, but most audiences won’t be.

2 ½ stars out of 5.

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