Monday, March 7, 2022

West Side Story (2021)


Upper West Side, Manhattan. 1957. An ongoing turf war between a gang of Caucasian youth called the Jets and their Puerto Rican rivals the Sharks is a cause of perpetual agony for the local police force. Jets leader Riff (Mike Faist) invites his nemesis, Sharks strongman Bernardo (David Alvarez), to settle the score once and for all in a gang battle days after an experimental dance headlined by the local government to bring peace between the two sides. Caught in between is co-founder of the Jets, Tony (Ansel Elgort), who wants to start fresh as a free man after a one-year stint in jail by earning his keep with the help of pharmacist’s widow Valentina (Rita Moreno). Aiming to find peace, the dance event itself becomes a trigger for an escalated dispute as Tony lays his eyes on Maria (Rachel Zegler), Bernardo’s sister who falls in love with the guy at first sight. As Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita (Ariana DeBose) would like to ask, is this the start of World War III?

Maria gets an upgrade. Where the hell did this Zegler kid come from? Is this her first feature film? With the only point of comparison being the 1961 film helmed by Natalie Wood in the same role, who wasn’t even believable to begin with, Zegler lends a fresh credibility to the role. But what if they got Maria’s ethnicity right this time around but not the vocal chops? Well, you only have to wait until she opens her mouth to sing her first song, the duet Tonight with Tony, and all those doubts will be put to rest.

Anyone who plays the role of Anita is bound to get as many acting accolades as she could possibly dream of, as long as she enjoys the ride and just sings and dances decently. The character’s firebrand persona usually takes care of the rest. It was that way when Rita Moreno won the supporting actress Oscar for the same role six decades ago, and so was it the case for Karen Olivo’s Tony in 2009. In this regard, that statuette is now DeBose’s to lose despite her rather late awards circuit campaign.

As for the boys, anybody else can be better than the actor who played Tony in the 60’s film whose name I couldn’t even remember because he was that forgettable. It’s just kind of sad that for a guy like Elgort, whose obvious affinity with musical theater was already evident even before he became a household name, this seems to be the career breakthrough he has been waiting for in a while only for it to be watered down by his own share of recent scandals. Oh well, at least you’ll be remembered as the better onscreen Tony despite being outshined by the ensemble cast of legit triple threats hailing from Broadway.

The shake-up as far as reception of the supporting actors are concerned seems to be between Riff and Bernardo. Despite both Faist and Alvarez being successful musical theater actors in their own right, it is evident that the former managed to shine brighter than the latter in this version, which is a bit confusing because Riff was not even that memorable in the 60’s version and George Chakiris even won an Oscar as Bernardo. In this remake, Faist gets nominated at the BAFTAs instead while Alvarez’s efforts go unnoticed.

Maybe that’s just what happens when you bank on a remake. Unless all of your characters are like Anita who is simply a magnet for acting awards, the new material will always be at the mercy of nostalgia for the original that is adored across generations. As for the song and dance numbers, it is surprising how this version’s America stands well against the iconic 60’s rendition. Perhaps it has something to do with Spielberg’s vision of utilizing the whole community as a backdrop, with the hues of the costumes even complementing the tones of the production design. It’s hypnotic like that, unlike the 60's version which was a legit sing/dance-off but set on a monotonous Manhattan rooftop..

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