If you have no idea what West Side Story is, or was, and are wondering whether you should see Steven Spielberg's remake of the 1961 film that won Best Picture and nine other Oscars, let me state up front that yes, you should see it. It's one of the greatest musicals of all time. It's by one of the greatest directors of all time. And if you need added incentive, its adapted script is by Tony Kushner – the guy who wrote Angels in America and, for Spielberg, Munich and Lincoln. So yeah. Go see it. I had a fantastic time. I hope you do, too.
Now, for the remainder of this review, let me speak to the rest of you.
Did the world really need another movie of this material? Maybe not. But with apologies to Natalie Wood, I certainly have no grievance with a re-do that allows its Hispanic characters to be played by, you know, actual Hispanic actors. And if a West Side Story remake had to happen, you'd be hard-pressed to wish for a more effective one than Spielberg's and Kushner's gloriously respectful yet shrewdly updated version, a work that pays due homage to the original without feeling trapped in its shadow. If you're familiar with the narrative, this take on the Sharks and the Jets and Tony and Maria and et cetera et cetera – all of it unfolding in the 1957 New York of the stage musical's premiere – won't shock you. You might, however, find yourself struck by how much genuine impact is made through seemingly minor alterations: “Gee, Officer Krupke”'s placement in the first half instead of the second; Tony and Maria's tender “Somewhere” duet transformed into a solo for the film's most world-weary figure. Happily, and gratefully, this is a film clearly made by people who both adore its 60-year-old predecessor and still saw 21st-century room for improvement.
Without meaning to court vitriol from die-hard devotees of Wood and company, I'd argue that Spielberg's rendition is an improvement on directors Robert Wise's and Jerome Robbins' original – though not necessarily in terms of its central romance. I landed on a West Side Story article the other day whose author rhetorically asked, “Has there ever been a good Tony?” I'd say yes, absolutely. The good ones, however, I've only seen on-stage, and while Ansel Elgort is a definite upgrade from 1961's Richard Beymer, he's still a bit of a dullard. Admittedly, part of my reaction might just be my natural resistance to Elgort: He shows up on-screen, and unless he's in Baby Driver, I feel almost physically compelled to wipe that smug sense of blasé entitlement off his face. Unfortunately, Elgort is barely more palatable to me as this film's heartthrob Jet.
When you first learn that this gang leader has recently returned from a year in prison, the actor's inexpressive, prep-school handsomeness makes you wonder if he was incarcerated for jaywalking, because surely that's the most violent crime this particular Tony could be capable of. And while Elgort's vibrant co-star Rachel Zegler emotes her heart out opposite him, the only thing she seems to be getting in return is eye contact. There's no fire to Tony's declarations of love either with or away from his beloved, and when the kid sings “Maria,” Elgort appears more convincingly puzzled by the faraway echoes of her name than convincingly enraptured by Maria herself. The lack of palpable heat, or danger, or much of anything between its leads damages the movie, and certainly makes the finale a drier-eyed affair that it should have been. But at least Elgort can dance, spectacularly, and he's more than acceptable in his vocals. And blessedly, we have Zegler and the rest of the ensemble on hand to help pick up the male lead's slack.
Zegler, who's making her film debut with West Side Story, is terrific. Her angelic, pitch-perfect soprano slays on “Tonight” and “One Hand, One Heart,” and Spielberg's visual playfulness in the “I Feel Pretty” number is matched by Zegler's wistfully giddy spinning and swooning; she's about as ideal a Maria as you could want. But it's no secret that this musical's Romeo and Juliet stand-ins collectively exude less personality than nearly any other individual character, so it's no surprise – although it is an enormous pleasure – to witness the show again being stolen by its support team.
Ariana DeBose's Anita is a whirlwind of sultry audacity and fierce loyalty, and David Alvarez's Bernardo, smartly re-imagined here as an amateur boxer, displays a menacing authority and charisma that helps compensate for the performer's moderately underwhelming vocals. Mike Faist makes a magnificent meal out of his role as Riff; playing into this Jet's appetite for mayhem and his very probable psychosis, Faist boasts a more magnetic, unpredictable presence than any of his co-stars. (When one of the Sharks points a gun at him, Riff presses his forehead against the barrel and dares his adversary to shoot.) And while there are plenty of laudatory things to say about Corey Stoll's subtly hateful Lieutenant Schrank, Josh Andrés Rivera's bespectacled Chino, Brian d'Arcy James' hapless Krupke, and especially Iris Menas' Anybodys – a figure more recognizably trans than the tomboy of 60 years ago – I left this West Side Story only wanting to talk about Rita Moreno. Either that, or wanting to get started pronto on the construction of a life-size statue in her honor.
Moreno, of course, won an Oscar for the 1961 original, and it was initially touching to see that Spielberg and Kushner found room for the now-90-year-old here as the newly created character Valentina, the widow of the drug-store “Doc” who interrupted the Jets' hideous assault on Moreno's Anita. I wasn't prepared, however, for the torrent of emotions and intensely moving associations that would accompany watching Moreno save Anita from her grim fate – the performer offering a de facto benediction to both her signature movie role and her 21st-century “replacement” DeBose. For all of the majesty of Leonard Bernstein's music and Stephen Sondheim's lyrics and their story's tragic romance, I didn't well up often at this West Side Story. But that moment in the drug store positively wrecked me, as did the realization that the beautiful, eternally soulful Moreno would be granted a solo rendition of “Somewhere” as the movie's unofficial 11-o'clock number, which the ageless performer delivers with heartbreaking simplicity and devastating breadth of feeling. Another Oscar doesn't feel appropriate for what Moreno brings to this film. If another planet, though, is soon discovered, naming it “Rita” wouldn't be the world's worst idea.
Somehow, despite all this performance-based talent, it's Spielberg himself who remains the best reason to catch West Side Story. It's been evident at least since the “Anything Goes” opener in 1984's Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom (if not the jitterbug sequences in 1979's notorious yet secretly not-bad flop 1941) that a lavishly scaled, exactingly choreographed musical was in the director's wheelhouse. But in a work that has a grand total of zero songs that aren't classics, Spielberg – aided in no small measure by choreographer Justin Peck and the superb new Bernstein orchestrations by David Newman – brings electricity and enthusiasm to every last one of them. “America” is a ravishingly energetic street celebration; “Gee, Officer Krupke” is a slapstick howl as relentlessly busy as any Indiana Jones chase; “The Dance at the Gym” is an explosive barrage of styles and substance; “Cool” is a perilous cliffhanger with an edifice's floorboard holes inviting certain death; “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love” is an anguished ode to romantic and platonic love. Running a speedy 156 minutes (making this landmark epic a full two minutes shorter than the execrable House of Gucci), Spielberg's West Side Story is a dream of a movie. Please see it. Preferably “Tonight.”
DON'T LOOK UP
You know the expression “build a better mousetrap”? If Adam McKay has a mantra these days, I'm thinking it's gotta be “Build a Bigger Soapbox.” After years of giving us some of the millennium's most agreeably goofy Will Ferrell comedies (Anchorman, Step Brothers, The Other Guys), the SNL vet and Funny or Die producer got serious-ish with 2015's financial-meltdown primer The Big Short and promptly received an Academy Award for it. Three years later, McKay presented us with his down-with-Cheney screed Vice and was similarly nominated for Best Picture, Directing, and Screenplay. It's now three years after that, and McKay is unleashing Don't Look Up, a dark end-of-days comedy that blatantly attacks America's anti-science faction while also showcasing the writer/director's derision for political nepotism, fact-challenged administrations, Big Tech, celebrity culture, gossip treated as journalism, Gen-Z hipster-ism, chatty morning-show anchors, and surcharges for free snacks. I'm not sure that McKay is after an Oscar for this one. But even though I largely enjoyed his messy, grouchy movie, I can't tell if, for his efforts, McKay would rather get a Nobel Prize, a knighthood, or a star on the Grumpy Old Man Walk of Fame.
In Don't Look Up, a pair of low-level astronomers (Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) discover that a comet the size of Mount Everest is heading directly toward Earth, and that its impact in six months will lead to the annihilation of all life on the planet. They bring the cataclysmic information to the White House, where the president (Meryl Streep) and her chief-of-staff son (Jonah Hill) are openly dismissive of the threat. They bring it to TV viewers, where a news program's hosts (Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry) treat the revelation as a side dish to the romantic tribulations of an iconic pop star (Ariana Grande). They bring it to a Google-esque CEO (Mark Rylance), who sees the comet as an impending boon to stockholders. Only a millennial nihilist (Timothée Chalamet) appears to take the impending disaster seriously, and he might be too stoned to truly give a crap.
If you paid even passing attention to the names within that paragraph's parentheses, you can see that McKay's latest is studded with stars, and that's without even mentioning the participation of such name talents as Rob Morgan, Ron Perlman, Melanie Lynskey, Michael Chiklis, Sarah Silverman, Chris Evans, and the voice of Liev Schreiber. (If McKay still owns a Rolodex, I'm presuming it's the size of a Ferris wheel.) Consequently, I found the film impossible to fully dislike even when its sourness, obviousness, and unsatisfying editing rhythms were driving me a little crazy. Rylance, as he often does, emerges as MVP, his tech loon's high-pitched rationalizations somehow sounding both level-headed and absolutely batshit insane. But Hill, especially in his cruel needling of Lawrence, is frequently laugh-out-loud funny, and DiCaprio is always at his sharpest in comedies, and Streep and Blanchett are clearly relishing the opportunity to play abject, empty-headed opportunism for laughs.
All of the performers have their moments, and McKay's script features a fair share of subversive narrative twists. But even though Don't Look Up is currently playing at the cineplex – and as much as I want people to keep frequenting area movie theaters – I'd suggest waiting to see it until its December 24 debut on Netflix, where the writer/director's frequently lame sitcom gags likely won't sound so desperate, and where McKay's undeniable, comedy-killing bitterness probably won't emit such a powerful stench. His miles-high soapbox will also look significantly smaller. It's harder to feel oppressed by a movie, after all, when you're a thumb-click away from turning it off.
BEING THE RICARDOS
Another current cineplex option, Aaron Sorkin's Being the Ricardos, is also going to be available for streaming during Christmas week, with the writer/director's show-biz tale hitting Prime Video on December 21. But as opposed to Don't Look Up, I'm not going to suggest waiting until its arrival on home screens and personal devices to see it. I'm going to suggest skipping it entirely. Because for perhaps the first time in my decades-long infatuation with most things Sorkin-ian, I found his latest offering excruciating – a behind-the-scenes salute to Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, and I Love Lucy that consistently squanders its considerable goodwill through tortuously dull flashbacks, graceless exposition, a chemistry-free pair of leads, and storytelling so labored that it almost seems like the work of a C-grade Aaron Sorkin impersonator. I've certainly sat through worse movies this year, but perhaps none that disappointed and depressed me quite as completely.
Really, this thing should've been foolproof, especially coming from Sorkin. Taking dramatic liberties, as he did in The Trial of the Chicago 7, with historical record, Sorkin imagines a week in the run of America's hugest television sensation in which three significant events took place: (1) Lucy (Nicole Kidman) was outed, unjustly, as a Communist by reporter Walter Winchell, an act in the Red Scare era that threatened her career and the future of her series; (2) a tabloid published accounts of Desi (Javier Bardem) cheating on his wife; and (3) Lucy and Desi discovered they were pregnant, and hoped to convince squeamish CBS executives to feature Lucy's pregnancy in her series. All of these events did, in fact, take place, though it won't take a dedicated chronicler of show-business lore to realize that there was no earthly way they all happened in the same week – and they didn't. It wasn't Sorkin's tinkering with the chronology, however, that upset me. It was that he made it so impossible to care. About any of it.
Following the course of a typical Monday-through-Friday week of I Love Lucy from first read-through to filmed performance in front of a live studio audience, Sorkin would seem to have an excellent narrative blueprint to work from – one not unlike the blueprint he employed in his script for Steve Jobs. Each of the five weekdays starts with an on-screen directive (“Table Read,” “Staging Rehearsal,” “Show Night”), and we watch as an I Love Lucy episode incrementally goes from the page to the stage. All of this stuff is informative, engaging, and entertaining, and Sorkin gives us a neat directorial flourish in having Lucy imagine the eventual black-and-white results of the reads and rehearsals while she's involved in them – a savvy nod to both Ball's professional acumen and her unrivaled comic instincts. (While Kidman and Bardem don't remotely resemble the real-life people they're portraying, they pull off their impressions best in these intentional sitcom moments.)
But surrounding these well-executed bits is so much else, and almost none of it is good. Every new weekday also brings with it a flashback to Lucy's and Desi's life together pre-I Love Lucy, scenes that are affectedly written, drearily staged, and, excepting a few amusing Bardem readings, thunderously boring. Every weekday brings with it a reiteration of those three aforementioned crisis points, which begin to sound distractingly alike whether those involved in the conversations are J.K. Simmons' dyspeptic William Frawley or Tony Hale's executive producer Jess Oppenheimer or Alia Shawkat's and Jake Lacy's beleaguered staff writers. Every weekday brings with it an unsubtle, unimaginative litany of factoids suggesting that Sorkin may well have read a book or two about the Lucy series and wants to show off his erudition. Here's an introduction to every CBS executive involved announcing their names and positions! Here's a history of Desi's emigration from Cuba! Here's a trek through Lucy's tenure as an RKO contract player!
Yet despite Sorkin providing his trademark Witty Banter, none of these bits are inventively – or even admirably – staged, and a '50s-melodrama lethargy slowly but irrevocably infiltrates the picture; even can't-miss recreations such as Kidman channeling Lucy Ricardo's stomping of grapes feels less like a highlight than desperate, momentary relief. Kidman and Bardem are generally wonderful actors, and both do their damnedest to salvage their scenes. But I never wholly bought them as either the people they were portraying or people in love, and without any rooting interest in Lucy's and Desi's situation, Being the Ricardos is just a stagnant trip down Memory Lane that doesn't seem to understand where its audience appeal might actually stem from. If there's any reason to catch Sorkin's film after it lands on Prime Video, it lies in the exquisitely crafted, empathetic performance of Nina Arianda as Vivian “Ethel Mertz” Vance, whose travails as a gorgeous and gifted character actor relegated to schlubby-sidekick duties are more than deserving of a film of their own. I Love Ethel, as a title, may not have the zing of I Love Lucy. But after more than two hours in this movie's company, I was all on-board with a potential Nina Arianda spin-off.
J.K. Simmons has reached the point in his career where he's become the American Michael Caine: He's an Oscar winner who's somehow in everything, he's always good (even in Being the Ricardos), and he only very rarely appears in the big-screen roles his talents deserve. But Simmons actually found one – and a leading one, to boot – in director Ric Roman Waugh's National Champions, the fictional tale of a Heisman-winning quarterback (the furiously fine Stephan James) who, demanding that college athletes be compensated for their efforts in a billion-dollar industry, initiates a nationwide players' strike on the weekend leading up to The Big Game.
An intensely timely sports drama that also succeeds as a first-rate, emotional beat-the-clock thriller, Waugh's movie, with its script by Adam Mervis, is only marginally undermined by a silly, contrived subplot involving Kristen Chenowith as an unfaithful spouse and Timothy Olyphant as an adulterous philosophy professor. (Much as I traditionally adore them, those are two actors I literally never expected to see romantically intertwined on-screen … and this film demonstrates why.) Yet everything else about this unheralded gem is topnotch, from the lucid arguments for paying college-sports participants to the heartfelt arguments – most of them delivered by a thunderously impassioned Uzo Aduba – explaining why that should never happen. And tying the whole of National Champions up with a bow is the beautiful sanity and complexity of J.K. Simmons, whose head coach James Lazor is partly the actor's relentless perfectionist from Whiplash, partly his sage and friendly dad from Juno, and, in the role's entirety, a complete original in the Simmons canon. In a film fond of long speeches, Simmons is granted a doozy, with Lazor allowed more than five uninterrupted minutes of candor, humility, encouragement, and inspiration. I would've been pummeled on a college-football team. Had Simmons been that team's coach, I still might've gone for it.