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Steven Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story’ looks gorgeous but falls short of greatness

The musical is made with skill, but it doesn’t evoke the passion the best films inspire

The first word that comes to mind when describing “West Side Story,” the second cinematic adaptation of the influential stage musical, is virtuosic. Steven Spielberg, the Hollywood heavyweight who directed this film, brings an elegance and formidable sense of cinematic craft to just about every moment in the movie. 

One only needs to look at the opening shot, a single swooping camera moment that beautifully surveys the wreckage of a former neighborhood in the quickly gentrifying New York City, to know they’re in the hands of a cinematic master. Why, then, does the film feel a bit cool to the touch? For all of its merits, which are considerable, the film doesn’t consistently evoke the kind of raw emotion that accompanies a great film. It’s a little more impressive than engaging.

The musical, seemingly set in the middle of the 1950s, chronicles the turf war between the Jets, a white street gang, and the Sharks, their Puerto Rican rivals. Squabbling over symbolic control of their bustling New York City neighborhood and animated by racial resentment, the two groups are constantly at each other’s throats, scuffling in the streets and always threatening the possibility of more serious violence. The great irony here is that, blinded by their hatred of each other, the Jets and Sharks spend all of their time on mutually assured destruction and direct none of their energy towards fighting their real enemy — the corporate powers rapidly tearing down and transforming their cherished communities.

Emerging from all of this enmity like an oasis in the desert is a passionate and illicit romance. María, the Puerto Rican sister of Sharks leader Bernardo, finds herself smitten with Tony, a former Jet who’s devoted himself to the straight and narrow after a stint in prison. First shown locking eyes from across a gymnasium during one of the film’s most striking song-and-dance numbers, the two fall for each other almost instantly.

Unfortunately, María and Tony’s love affair gets a furious reception from Bernardo, who only sees it as further reason to intensify his war with the Jets. As the conflict escalates and this young romance is thrust into the middle of the turf war, the bounds of María and Tony’s love are tested by circumstances partly out of their control.

With Rachel Zegler, a YouTuber-turned-actress, in the central female role, it’s easy to understand Tony’s immediate infatuation. Zegler is gorgeous, but it’s not just her looks that make her so luminous. In the role, she projects a youthful vitality and radiance that make her an instantly winning protagonist. It’s a terrific breakout performance.

The rest of the cast acquit themselves well, with Ariana DeBose and Mike Faist being particular standouts. As Anita, Bernardo’s live-in girlfriend, DeBose brings a sexy and independent spunk to the character, while Faist brings a sly and cunning quality to the character of Riff, the Jets’ leader.

Spielberg executes the musical numbers with aplomb, with editors Michael Kahn and Sarah Broshar fluidly cutting from shot to shot with energy and dexterity. The film is also littered with memorable images — cinematographer Janusz Kamiński effectively uses tracking shots, lens flares and gloriously expressive colors. It’s a gorgeous and excellently crafted film.

In spite of all of this, the film still falls short of true greatness. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why — almost every cast and crew member is operating at the height of their powers, and the movie is always entertaining. Still, this musical just feels somewhat empty on the inside. Ultimately, it lacks a certain vitality that distinguishes great films from the merely good ones. In spite of all of the tragedy that María and Tony’s love affair inadvertently leads to, their passion proves insuppressible up until the bitter end. This film, for all of its merits, should’ve inspired more of that ardor.