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Review: 'West Side Story' had me asking one question over and over: Why?

Rachel Zegler and Ansel Elgort in "West Side Story" (2021)

Rachel Zegler and Ansel Elgort in "West Side Story" (2021) (20th Century Studios)

Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes

THE WEST SIDE — Just in time for the holidays, Steven Spielberg is releasing his remake of the holiday classic, "West Side Story."

Wait, is the musical about doomed lovers, racism and class inequality a holiday movie? Not at all, but it's primed and ready for a Christmas release.

The new film from the iconic director is based more specifically on the original stage production and not the 1961 film of the same name. Both the stage musical and the original film are very similar, but some things were changed in the movie that were undoubtedly a little too heavy for a 1961 audience. Those things have found their way back into this 2021 version with some other additions, as well.

Let's stop beating around the bush here and get to the point: I did not care for "West Side Story." In fact, I had a lot of problems with it, but that's just my two cents.

So, here are the reasons why the film did not work for me — and one reason why I think YOU might actually love it.

My issues

The whole thing doesn't fit

Spielberg has done a fantastic job behind the camera with the stunning visuals of the film. This comes as no surprise. But what is happening in the story, what we're seeing visually does not mesh with the tone and upbeat nature of the music. Yes, the music is iconic and quite beautiful at times, but something about the upbeat tempo with the surprising dark lyrics hit me differently this time.

Also, in case anyone has forgotten, "West Side Story" is a heavy story with nothing but disappointment and sadness around every dilapidated corner. There are themes and plot points consisting of murder, racism, classism, drug use, rape and just about everything else. Seeing what's playing out and realizing the depravity and nastiness of most of the characters only to jump into a flamboyant musical number of "I Feel Pretty" just did not fit.

Spielberg has created stunning sets and made the world feel much more real, but it's a musical with these catchy tunes and it just felt like two pieces of the same puzzle that didn't fit together.

I had not seen the original film for some time, but the adult version of me saw this movie in a very different light. I struggled with the concept of two people falling in love after five minutes and six words and their willingness to watch the world burn around them. Yes, I know that has always been the story and that it is based on what is often considered the greatest love story of all time, "Romeo and Juliet," but the grown-up, dad version of John just couldn't get on board.

I got bored

"West Side Story" has a runtime of two and a half hours. I don't know about you, but for me, that's a considerable chunk of time. I found myself glancing at my watch multiple times wondering when it was time to move on with my day. The musical numbers did not keep me enthralled as they should have and I was honestly bored.

Some of this may have to do with the fact I knew exactly where the story was headed and what we were going to see next. It was like taking a long car ride to the dentist. It's a trip you've made a thousand times before — with lights you know all too well and the same playlist on the car stereo you've heard a thousand times. And all this time and familiar surroundings just to get to a disappointing destination.

I don't understand why

Spielberg can make any film he wants. No doubt he has stacks of scripts piled up in his office of projects asking for his attention. Why he pushed all of those to the side to remake "West Side Story" is beyond me. It was obviously a passion project, but I keep asking myself, "Why?"

"West Side Story" is such an iconic film that millions know by heart. It's been on Broadway on and off for more than five decades, not to mention all of the local theaters and high schools that have put on the production as well. While so many movies these days make me scratch my head and wonder why the filmmakers decided to remake it, this one takes the cake.

Again, Spielberg has created a stunning world in the camera that feels real and tangible, and there are a few nuanced changes here and there; but when all is said and done, it's the same thing we've seen so many times before.

Why you might love it

It's 'West Side Story'

About halfway through the 2021 "West Side Story," I had a revelation: I don't really care for the original.

As a kid, I got sucked into the music and the dancing and didn't really notice the story — or at least not fully. I could understand what was mainly happening. But watching this time I remembered that there are almost no likable characters — a majority of character decisions make zero sense and a lot of the lyrics are a mess.

I know I'm not allowed to say that because they were written by Steven Sondheim, who was absolutely brilliant. But in my defense, the late Sondheim told "60 minutes" in 2020 that the lyrics embarrass him.

I didn't really like the film because I wasn't a big fan of the source material, but that may be the exact reason you might love it. If you are a fan of the musical and the film, you may eat up every second of the new "West Side Story." You will likely love the extravagant musical numbers.

Another plus: I think Ansel Elgort did a fine job as the love-sick Tony.

What parents should know

"West Side Story" is rated PG-13, which I think is a fair rating for the themes and tone of the film. As I mentioned earlier, this isn't a happy movie and there are a lot of themes and discussions that are likely a little too grown-up for some younger audiences.

Should I go see it?

This is tough. I have no interest in watching "West Side Story" again, but if you love the source material it may be a perfect trip to the theater.

"West Side Story" is one of the reasons I love films so much: We all get to make our own judgments and opinions will vary wildly on one film. There will be many like me who aren't fans of Spielberg's latest and there will be others who will see it multiple times.

"West Side Story" is rated PG-13 for some strong violence, strong language, thematic content, suggestive material and brief smoking.

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About the Author: John Clyde

John has grown up around movies and annoys friends and family with his movie facts and knowledge. He also has a passion for sports and pretty much anything awesome, and it just so happens, that these are the three things he writes about. To read more of his articles, visit John's author page.

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