'West Side Story' review: Spielberg's adaptation of classic lacks drive

Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler star in remake of Oscar-winning 1961 musical.

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

True love, racial strife and Shakespeare collide in "West Side Story," Steven Spielberg's well-meaning but sometimes flat remake of the Oscar-winning 1961 musical.

The 74-year-old Spielberg, still a whiz kid at heart, stays true to the bones of the original story, which was first a "Romeo and Juliet"-inspired Broadway show before it made its way to the big screen.

Ansel Elgort in "West Side Story."

And it's those bones that make this adaptation feel rickety: sure, true love is great, but does it really conquer all, even if your crush — who you've known all of two days — stabs your sibling to death? Most relationship experts would agree that's a bit of a red flag. 

It would be one thing if the lovebirds at the center of the story — Ansel Elgort as Tony, Rachel Zegler as Maria — had a chemistry that set the screen on fire. Alas, they do not: Elgort, usually stiff in movies ranging from the "Divergent" series to "Baby Driver," loosens up a bit here, but newcomer Zegler feels like his kid sister, not his love interest. 

Tony and Maria come from warring factions of skinny theater kids: Tony is a Jet, the White sons of their absent, drunken immigrant fathers, and Maria is affiliated with the Sharks, the Puerto Rican gang whom the Jets feel are taking over their neighborhood. They battle it out in rumbles, pre-determined meet-ups to fight over turf, winner take a little at a time.  

It all unfolds in a changing New York; an opening shot cranes over Lincoln Center, which has no doubt staged its fair share of "West Side Story" adaptations over the years. "Angels in America's" Tony Kushner is the screenwriter here and the music sticks the original songs, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, who died just last month.

Rita Moreno — who won an Oscar playing Anita, Maria's bestie, in the original — plays Valentina, a shop owner who tries keeping Tony in line. It at first looks like a cameo, a nod to Moreno's role in the previous film, but it's a fully fleshed out part, and a nice piece of synchronicity with the earlier work that lets Moreno shine once again. 

Here, Ariana DeBose ("Hamilton") plays Anita, and brings a scene-stealing fire and spark to the role. She's got the energy that Zegler needs but is unable to find.

As the Jets and the Sharks prepare to do battle, a handful of Jets wind up in the cop shop, where the film's best number ("Gee, Officer Krupke") is staged. It's a limber, tightly choreographed sequence that's funny and alive, more alive than the love story at the center of the film.

And so it goes. "West Side Story" is an old-fashioned homage to the past that works best in that context; fitting it into our modern era, in terms of themes or story or even plausibility, comes up short. Spielberg — who rivals his student J.J. Abrams in his use of lens flares here — retells "West Side Story" but doesn't update it. It's the same old song and dance.

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

'West Side Story'

GRADE: C+

Rated PG-13: for some strong violence, strong language, thematic content, suggestive material and brief smoking

Running time: 156 minutes

In theaters