West Side Story Movie Review
I watched the original West Side Story a few months ago. Now, a day before the 2022 Academy Awards, I finally sat down to watch the new, Steven Spielberg-directed Best Picture nominee and… this is a Best Picture nominee?
Technically wonderful but largely soulless, Spielberg’s West Side Story succeeds in bringing 1950s New York City to life in a more realistic, gritty, and grounded way. Sadly, it comes at the expense of nearly everything else.
Compared to more modern musicals that have ratcheted up the energy, charisma, and, yes, the quality of the musical numbers, West Side Story feels as though it’s stuck in… well, the 1950s. Lazily built on orchestral beats, the movie is unable to escape its stage roots; even the bigger dance-and-song numbers are sleepy and uninspired. And yes, I’m referring to some of the play’s most well known and classic songs such as Maria, America, and I Feel Pretty–they just aren’t very good anymore.
The cast does little to help, though arguably there isn’t much they could do. Rachel Zegler is solid as Maria, but her romantic counterpart Ansel Elgort, a fine actor in his own right, lacks the charisma necessary to make us care about his exploits. I wouldn’t have even pointed out Oscar nominee Ariana DeBose if not for the fact that she was indeed nominated for an Oscar; she, like the rest of the cast, simply fail to stand out in any real way or form. This is perhaps less a criticism of the performances than the material itself; it fails to give its actors much reason to be remembered.
Of course, this new West Side Story looks great, the smallest of details brought to life in vivid color and grit, the camera sweeping through the sets as if it were alive. No one has ever questioned Mr. Spielberg’s craft in this regard, though his latest is another reminder that the famed director seems more fixated on the technical aspects these days than the human ones.
Lacking substantial entertainment value and feeling notably dated in terms of story and musical approach, it’s a head-scratcher as to why Spielberg chose West Side Story as the musical to remake. The original, while suffering from some of the same issues, felt more alive and energetic than any scene on display here.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.