Devoid of spark, ‘West Side Story’ is rough, unfortunate film adaptation

Scene from film West Side Story
20th Century Studios/Courtesy

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Grade: 2.0/5.0

Contains spoilers for “West Side Story,” directed by Steven Spielberg.

“West Side Story” has an outstanding legacy. The original musical, with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, won two Tony Awards and marked a turning point in musical theater with its dark themes and emphasis on social problems. The 1961 film adaptation was nominated for 11 Oscars and won 10, including the Academy Award for Best Picture, and the film has been deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress. Needless to say, the 2021 film adaptation of “West Side Story” has some large dancing shoes to fill — but equally obvious is its inability to do so.

Set in 1950s Manhattan and inspired by “Romeo and Juliet,” “West Side Story” follows the rivalry between two gangs: the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks. A forbidden romance forms between Tony (Ansel Elgort), a former Jet and best friend of its leader, Riff (Mike Faist), and Maria (Rachel Zegler), the sister of Bernardo (David Alvarez), the leader of the Sharks. 

There are several minor plot changes throughout this latest adaptation. For instance, Bernardo now joins Anita (Ariana DeBose) in singing “America.” Anybodys (Iris Menas), originally a tomboy, is now transgender, and Doc’s Drugstore is now owned by Doc’s Puerto Rican widow, Valentina, a totally new character. Most of these changes have little significant effect on the plot and only serve to slightly switch up and modernize this retelling. One of the more ambitious changes, however, absolutely steers the story to take a turn for the worse.

Tony is given a new backstory in the latest “West Side Story,” and it simply does not work. The audience receives an explanation as to why exactly Tony is no longer an active Jet: He brutally attacked a rival gang member at a previous rumble and served a year in prison for it. Although giving Tony’s character a history and more depth was an innovative — and important — decision, this particular choice makes Tony seem violent and incapable of change, snowballing at the climax of the film. Elgort’s Tony comes off as careless and dangerous, and unfortunately, Maria isn’t much more likable, either.

Maria appears naive throughout the film, which in itself isn’t much of a problem. She is 18, after all, and on paper, her greenness makes her love-at-first-sight romance with Tony all the more exciting. Her naivety, however, is pushed to its limits when she decides to run away with Tony even after he kills her brother — a tragedy made far more irredeemable in this adaptation due to Tony’s violent history. From this point on, Maria’s character is spoiled by selfishness and shortsightedness. 

Although the film tries, this decision is impossible to sell under the guise of true love. Elgort and Zegler have little chemistry, and their characters’ romance feels incredibly rushed and artificial. Tony comes off as creepy, and Maria seems obsessive, creating a love story that audiences cannot eagerly root for.

There are, admittedly, some good qualities about “West Side Story.” Riff and Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend, are interesting and well-rounded. They’ve endured adversity and worked hard to actively pursue their goals — it’s a shame the film doesn’t center around them. The music and dancing in “West Side Story” are also decently fun, though never groundbreaking. 

The film’s best feature, however, is its large amount of Spanish dialogue that isn’t accompanied by subtitles. If audiences know Spanish, they’ll understand these lines. If not, they won’t. The subtitles in “West Side Story” do not imply that English is the standard or default language, and the film isn’t afraid of forcing its non-Spanish speaking viewers to listen to long passages of Spanish dialogue.

Despite a few positive points, “West Side Story” is a love story that completely crumbles with its weak, often off-putting central romance. It marks a disappointing installment to the development of “West Side Story,” and hopefully, viewers won’t have to wait another 50 years for a redo.

Contact Joy Diamond at [email protected].