Can Several Wrongs Make a Right? – West Side Story

I can’t remember the last time I felt so… conflicted, about a movie. I wholeheartedly believe that Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story should not exist. It should not have been made. It is an insult to one of the true classics of cinema history, and commits the blasphemous sin of remaking a previous Best Picture winner. The marketing for it has been shameless, with a constant bombardment of trailers and teasers since April, including a segment within the Oscars telecast to promote it. Most media outlets refuse to call it a “remake” – instead opting for more dishonest terms like “re-adaptation” or “re-imagining” even though at its core this is fundamentally the same movie as the one that came out 60 years ago, with only mostly cosmetic changes to the plot and characters – because Spielberg and Disney want to give it more credibility than it deserves and rewrite language to serve their own interests.

And let’s not forget that this is Spielberg we’re talking about here. You know, the guy who railed against the Academy for allowing Netflix movies to be considered. He’ll clutch his pearls over the supposed sanctity of cinema when it’s in his interest to do so, but this is also the same guy who re-released E.T. with all the guns digitally replaced with walkie-talkies. And now he’s doing this? What are the rules, O Exalted One? What should be sacrosanct in film and what shouldn’t? Because when you remake a Best Picture winner, you’re telling me that nothing should be held sacred if it supersedes your ego. It is the absolute height of directorial hubris to take a film that was named by cinema’s highest authority as the best work of art from a certain year, and then say that you can do it better.

It’s insulting. It’s craven. It smacks of hypocrisy and elitism. And the only reason I even bothered watching it is because I’m a cynic, and I know all this bullshit will pay off with at least a few token Oscar nominations, if not truly vomit-inducing ones like Best Picture and Best Director.

But… it is a good movie. I can’t deny that. There is some fairly spectacular shit in this wholly ill-advised endeavor, enough that I can at least say that I won’t judge you if you enjoy it. At times over the last week I’ve even come close to outright endorsing it. Because as much as I don’t want it to be around, I can’t shut myself off and pretend there isn’t any quality here. So what am I to do?

The best solution I could think of is to go over the individual elements and highlight what works and what doesn’t, then grade it on balance. This is essentially what I normally do, but I also factor in personal enjoyment and the overall quality of the presentation. Those don’t really apply here. There’s no overarching judgment to be made, because the bar is impossibly high, given that the previous film not only won Best Picture, but is considered one of the greatest films of all time. Any true comparison has to leave this movie unfathomably low. Also, my own personal enjoyment can’t factor in, because I really didn’t enjoy the movie, because I know in my heart of hearts it shouldn’t have happened. So I have to take a more detached view of the situation. My emotions will come into play here and there, but not nearly to the extent that they normally would. I mean, there was a significant part of me that was hoping Spielberg would at least have some respect and delay the release since Stephen Sondheim just died, so that at minimum it could come out next year, not be in contention for Oscars now, and not be a part of the Awards Season push. Alas, I’m not that lucky.

***

I’ll get the bad stuff out of the way first, because that stuff is really bad. Adding to my personal dilemma here, there is no middle ground on any of the major elements. They’re either stupendous or they suck out loud. Nothing is just okay. I’ll give you all a general warning now that I will be discussing plot details, so be prepared. This isn’t a spoiler alert, because you’ve had 60 years to watch this movie, and again, nothing of any great importance is changed from one version to the other.

First off are the performances. With only about two exceptions (two and a half, maybe), the cast is crap. I love Ansel Elgort as an actor overall, but as Tony, he is alarmingly one-note. This goes for not just his acting, but for his vocal range for about half the songs. The rare times he does change register, it’s for a weak falsetto that’s clearly aided by auto-tune. The same goes for newcomer Rachel Zegler as Maria. She does fine in her speaking parts (that’s the half), but her singing is jarringly different from her speech, at times sounding like an opera singer with a sinus infection, with what occasionally felt like an affected Dora the Explorer accent. Either her speaking voice was changed, or her singing voice was, because both of the voices I heard could not possibly come out of the same mouth.

It goes on. Ariana DeBose leaves almost no impression as Anita, which is especially shameful since Rita Moreno is right fucking there watching her. David Alvarez, playing Bernardo, might as well be a cardboard cutout. Brian d’Arcy James is a fine actor, but does nothing with Officer Krupke, same with Corey Stoll playing Lieutenant Schrank. Josh Andrés Rivera plays Chino as a nerdy beta male, in case we weren’t already supposed to hate him for killing Tony in the end. Iris Menas as Anybodys is annoying in the extreme, and a symptom of a larger problem I’ll get to shortly. A huge ensemble was put forward for this, and 98% of them weren’t worth the effort.

Next is the spotlight fetish. You may not have this locked in your head, but Spielberg gets a massive hard-on for spotlights and lens flares, and once you see it, you can never un-see it. It’s on full display here, with tons of illogical spotlights on the gym floor, the outsides and insides of shops, and even on Maria herself on the fire escape. There are moments where it’s almost blinding, and serves absolutely no purpose.

I’m sorry, was I supposed to be able to SEE anything here?

The movie is long. So. Very. LONG! It’s only four minutes longer than the original film, but it feels like an eternity because of the way it’s paced. In the original, the opening fight between the Jets and the Sharks was a slow, cool buildup where we constantly saw the characters, watched the tensions start to simmer, and then eventually boil over, and it’s done over the course of several minutes. The sequence is repeated in a similar manner here, but crucial bits of visual development through dance and false starts is largely replaced by nasty-looking CGI rubble of crumbled buildings, signs about luxury high-rises on the way, and impossible geography. It looked like Spielberg was trying to dissolve a battlefield scene from War of the Worlds into the opening of In the Heights, and it just didn’t work.

In a similar manner, a scene with Anybodys and some of the Jets in a police station before the rumble leads into the “Gee Officer Krupke” number. This is actually my favorite song from the musical, because it’s the one major group number that doesn’t really involve the lead players, and it’s a funny palate cleanser before the intermission in the first movie, and one last bit of lightheartedness before the ending of the stage show. But here, it’s a largely pointless scene used only to give Anybodys more screen time, and it goes nowhere. As much as I love the song, the whole scene could have been cut and I wouldn’t have missed it.

Normally I don’t care all that much about the source material if the artistic license taken is at least logical to the story the filmmakers are trying to tell. But since Spielberg and the film’s proponents use it as a selling point, it’s fair game. A lot of people are trying to make like this is a better version than the 1961 film because Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner moved some of the songs back to their original placement in the stage musical, most notably “Cool” and “I Feel Pretty.” But here’s the thing, only one of those numbers moving has any real impact on the story, they still left “Krupke” in basically the same place, and had the Sharks men and women go back and forth in “America,” like the first film rather than the stage version where the number is all-female. So is it really all that more “faithful” to the stage show? Only if you don’t know how words work.

But the biggest problem of all is the posturing and heavy-handed messaging. One of the most beautiful and poignant things about the original film (and the musical), is that there are no “good guys” and “bad guys.” The Jets and Sharks are equally to blame for everything that goes down, because they’re no-good punks who care more about “turf” and “power” than anything else, to the point that innocents die and kill.

All that nuance is gone here, as Spielberg definitively picks sides throughout the movie, and it’s clear he picks the Sharks. The Jets are unrepentant racists, defacing Puerto Rican murals and using racial slurs. Schrank is just as racist, hoping the Jets will at least name names so he can arrest some of the Sharks, but he also makes a point to tell the Jets that they’re nothing but white trash, and when the neighborhood is torn down, they’ll be obsolete. When Anita is attacked at Doc’s store right before the end, which angers her enough to lie and say Maria’s dead, the original scene has Doc tell the boys that they “make this world lousy.” Here, Valentina (Moreno) leaves no ambiguity when she says, “I know your names. I watched you grow up. You’re rapists.”

All the character development is on the Sharks’ side of the equation. Anita wants to open a dress shop. She even gets a smack-you-across-the-face metaphor where she’s stitching a piece of cloth, then tears it up in front of Schrank as a means of saying she’s not a snitch. Maria wants to become a businesswoman as well, working multiple jobs to pay her way and asserting her equality to Bernardo and Anita as a resident of their apartment, with no mention of the fact that she was brought to the mainland as an arranged bride for Chino. Bernardo himself is a boxer rising through the ranks. He can’t be a bad person. That would be racist, or something. So literally everyone on the Sharks side has some sort of ham-fisted backstory to justify their actions. Even the ones without defined characters are studious, pious, and trying to defend their ethnic identity.

The Jets get none of that, save Anybodys, but that’s only because Spielberg decided to make them non-binary. Why do I make that deduction when the character was always portrayed as a girl who had a tomboy side? Well, it comes down to casting. Iris Menas is a non-binary performer, though I presume with that name they are at least cis-female from birth. Spielberg et al made this whole big deal about how bad it was that most of the Sharks in the original were played by white actors in dark makeup (and I agree, but it was perfectly normal for the time; again we’re judging yesterday by today’s standards), so he was going to correct that sin and give his movie proper representation by only casting according to actual demographics. As such, by casting a non-binary actor, I am left to assume he intended Anybodys to be a non-binary character. The change adds nothing, their character beats are exactly the same, and it extends the runtime, with the pandering police station scene literally there just to set up the “Krupke” number and allow Anybodys to assert that they aren’t a girl despite another Jet claiming he pulled down their pants and saw a vagina. Oh, and as for the rest of the “representation,” Spielberg added one scene with a black character, from whom Riff (Mike Faist) buys a gun so he can cheat in the rumble, with that gun later being recovered and used by Chino to kill Tony. Before Chino just got himself a gun. Now he has to get it from the murderous white punk for the sake of what Spielberg thinks is poetic justice.

Even Tony, the ostensible male lead, only gets one line’s worth of development, and it’s in service to this massive overcorrection of making sure the Jets are the only ones in the wrong. To explain why Tony hasn’t been active with the Jets for a while before the events of the film (because “maturing” and “outgrowing” gang violence isn’t allowed to be a thing), it’s written in that Tony spent the previous year in prison for nearly beating a different kid to death in a different rumble with a different gang. Now he’s out on parole, and trying to keep his nose clean. So now Tony’s a recidivist, and prone to violent outbursts. Way to go, Spielberg, you just turned your hero into a villain and added nothing to his character other than a side quest subway ride with Maria to a church to further pad the run time. This new development doesn’t even have minor implications on anything that goes on in the rest of the story. It’s used as an excuse to not go to the dance, but then he just shows up anyway, WITH KRUPKE THERE LOOKING AT HIM, and nothing happens. Everything else relating to it is little more than a rehash of Carl Winslow’s “I shot a kid” speech from Die Hard.

It’s disgusting. It’s one thing to highlight one side’s plight in certain situations, but here Spielberg and Kushner go out of their way to declare an allegiance to the Sharks and everything they stand for, and that’s just wrong. The whole point is that the hatred and violence is not justified, no matter what side it comes from. That was also the point of Romeo & Juliet, from which the original musical was adapted. By picking sides, so much of the credibility is robbed from the proceedings, and it comes off as trying to make an already inherently political film even more politically resonant for today, and at best it comes off as patronizing.

***

Now, all that said, let’s get to the good stuff, and there’s a lot of it, all of which is very high level. As horrific and shameless as the campaigning has been, if these areas were to receive Oscar nominations, I wouldn’t be the least bit offended.

As I mentioned, there are two performances that are actually worth the time it took to shoot. The first is Moreno herself as Valentina. While I roll my eyes slightly at changing “Doc” to “Doc’s Widow” to shoehorn Moreno into the cast in a naked attempt to buy legitimacy, the change does work. She serves as an example for Tony and Maria that a white guy can be with a Puerto Rican lady and live a happy life together. In an unexpected decision, it’s Valentina who sings “Somewhere” as a dirge of forlorn hope, and it works spectacularly. And most importantly, even though she’s only in about five scenes, Moreno acts circles around the rest of the cast with ease. There’s a reason she’s a goddam national treasure.

The second is Mike Faist as Riff. Best known as a stage actor (he originated the role of Connor in “Dear Evan Hansen” on Broadway, for example), Faist plays Riff purely as a stage character, and delivers every single second he’s on screen as if the entire affair is one giant theatre for him to make his own. The character of Riff gets no development whatsoever. If anything he’s even less redeemable than in the play or the first film. But the performance is beyond stellar, the commanding presence that Faist brings to the role elevating the scenes with the Jets through sheer force of will alone. I would love to see him nominated for Supporting Actor. He’s easily the best thing about this movie.

Boy, boy, awesome boy!

Then there’s the choreography. Justin Peck was in charge of the dance numbers, and this is probably the one area where this film not only equals but surpasses the original. Just about every major song has moves that reference or pay homage to the original, particularly the opening, the rumble, “America,” and “I Feel Pretty.” But in each case, Peck takes them one step further making the scale feel that much larger even when it isn’t. Even in moments that didn’t exactly work for me, like turning the dance hall into a miniature rumble, but with dresses, I can still acknowledge the quality behind the effort. Tony and Maria’s meeting also fell short for me, because rather than them just meeting in the middle of the dance floor, they have to walk behind bleachers while staring at each other and not bumping into anyone (bullshit) because Maria is immediately horned up and goes in for a kiss. It’s a bad decision, but what saves it is the fact that right before that kiss, they recreate the arms-out swan dance that Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer did in the original, only with the added taboo of it being done in secret. As much as the “Krupke” scene was superfluous to the flow of this story, the madcap dance moves, along with the editing, was at least pleasing to the eye.

As I said earlier, some of the songs were moved around, both from the movie’s order and from the musical’s, yet it was still somehow branded as more “faithful” to the stage show. One major diversion that should have been the key example of taking risks with this movie was the new use of “Cool.” In the first movie, it’s sung after the Rumble by Ice, taking over as leader after Riff’s death, to keep the rest of the Jets out of trouble. In the musical, it’s sung by Riff in order to have the Jets keep their calm in anticipation of the meeting with the Sharks to set the terms of the rumble. Well, we can’t allow the white kids to be reasonable, so out that goes. But in a rather inspired choice, the song is placed back before the rumble, and is instead a duet between Riff and Tony, where the latter tries to convince the former to call off the rumble entirely, using Riff’s newly-acquired handgun as a “hot potato” being passed around.

This is really quite something. There are constantly rising stakes within the number, as an outside observer unaware of the source material could be led to believe that Tony is getting through to Riff, and there’s a chance at a happy – or at least peaceful – ending. The accompanying Jets are torn between their two leaders, unsure whose side to take. There’s dangerous choreography, with the action taking place on a collapsed bridge where anyone could fall to their deaths if they make too hasty of a movie. The tension keeps ramping up to a gorgeous crescendo. It’s masterful!

If someone was truly serious about putting a new spin on the story and the film, this is the way to go. It takes something we already have a familiarity with, but repurposes it in an entirely fresh way that grants a different perspective to the proceedings, making us rethink what we already know. The same can be said about Valentina singing “Somewhere” towards the end, but that’s a shorter song and it’s just Moreno singing it. This is a full-blown number that could have been a signal of an actual new telling. Instead it’s a high point, but an example of what might have been.

Finally, there’s the production design. While the CGI backgrounds are cheesy and outdated, to the point where you can almost imagine the studio tour group walking around the edges, the actual set pieces for the various scenes and numbers are spectacular. The alley/fire escape for “Tonight” is absolutely stunning, particularly the way Tony has to climb around it to get to Maria. The layout of Maria’s apartment creates some great opportunities for trick camera movements. Setting “I Feel Pretty” in a department store overnight allows for fun mirror work.

Honestly, the only set that felt like a missed opportunity was the rumble scene in a salt warehouse (where they store rock salt for winter to melt snow and ice). Given the white mountains surrounding the two gangs, and given the violence, there was potential for some really good imagery with blood contrasting on the surface, or even using the salt as a weapon to literally rub it in someone’s wound as a means of causing more pain during the fight. Instead, we have to be content with it just looking cool, but given all the other great set designs, that’s perfectly acceptable.

***

So where do we stand? I know I went on more at length about the bad stuff, but that’s because those points required a more detailed explanation for why they didn’t work as opposed to the good stuff, which mostly succeeds just from a basic eye test before you get into the details and realize how superlative they are.

But in reality, for the most part I’m highlighting five really good things and seven really bad things, which leaves it in a position of “good,” but not “great.” Again, if I’m truly putting my emotions into this, that means it’s a failure, because to piss off so many film purists and end up with something that’s just good isn’t nearly good enough. The standard is by necessity too high, which is why such endeavors shouldn’t even be undertaken. But I’m trying to be fair and as objective as possible within a subjective construct. In many ways, I hated this movie, but it would be completely closed-minded to not at least acknowledge where Spielberg et al did not only a good job, but a tremendous one.

So yes, it’s good. It’s solid. If you’ve never seen the original movie, you’re sure to be delighted. And if you’re like me and absolutely adore the first film, you’re still very likely to find enjoyable things about it.

But it still shouldn’t be.

Grade: B-

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Will this open the floodgates for more prestige remakes? Did you age 60 years just reading this review? Let me know!

3 thoughts on “Can Several Wrongs Make a Right? – West Side Story

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