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Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story Is Getting Mostly Rave Reactions, Except For Ansel Elgort

 

Riff, Tony, Maria, and Bernardo pose on the street in the 2021 'West Side Story' remake

Director Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story was screened for critics, and the film is generating primarily positive buzz. While formal reviews will go up at a later date, social media reactions started to emerge moments after audiences exited. Those reactions are wildly enthusiastic about many elements, with one exception—the film’s male lead, Ansel Elgort, who plays Tony. Let’s take a look at what people are saying.

I was in attendance at the packed New York City screening of West Side Story, and I enjoyed it very much. I went in without many expectations: Spielberg may be a legend, but that doesn’t mean I’ve loved all of his movies, and West Side Story bears a huge cultural weight, both for good and ill. But Spielberg’s remake is broad in its scope and vibrantly shot; as a native New Yorker, I especially appreciated seeing swathes of the city depicted in the mid-1950s.

The performances are top-notch almost across the board. The standout for me is David Alvarez’s electric Bernardo, teamed well with Ariana DeBose’s strong Anita. I also appreciated Mike Faist’s compelling Riff and newcomer Rachel Zegler as a very fresh-faced Maria with a soaring voice.

In fact, the whole of the cast members—the supporting cast and dancers do a lot here—are fantastic. The one sour note is Ansel Elgort’s glum Tony. Elgort seems miscast, sings flatly, and shares little chemistry with anyone onscreen. He’s a strange choice for a leading man from one of the world’s most famous and lauded directors. What does Ansel Elgort have on Steven Spielberg? And after the accusations that emerged about Elgort last year, does he have any place at all being involved with the movie’s promotion?

My feelings on Elgort in the film echoed this reaction to a T:

There you have it: Ansel Elgort, with the charisma of an expired clam. Luckily for West Side Story, however, the rest of the able cast stays on their toes. Here are those raves before we return to the problem of Elgort.

Do you notice how none of these thrilled raves mention Ansel Elgort, the ostensible star/male lead of the movie around which the “greatest love story of all time” is intended to revolve? That’s because he’s the worst part of this film and some people are politely trying to tiptoe past that fact.

Many, however, are not!

As a reminder, Elgort was accused of sexual assault in 2020, by someone who would have been 17 years old at the time of the alleged assault. Then in response, while denying the assault claims, Elgort asserted that he’d had a “consensual” relationship with said 17-year-old, when he was 20. It’s uncomfortable to watch him, now age 27, across from Zegler, an actual teenager when the movie was shooting.

Beyond the awful accusations—which emerged after West Side Story had wrapped shooting—Elgort is a strange casting choice, as he does not offer any compelling singing or acting here. He is, as another Twitter reaction puts it, “a black hole at the center of West Side Story.” As an actor best known for The Fault in Our Stars and Baby Driver, Elgort doesn’t bring much star power, either—it’s a perpetual joke that he’s easily confused with other actors who resemble him and have unconventional names like Alden Ehrenreich. Again, what does he have on Steven Spielberg?

Those accusations are also coloring much of the public reaction to West Side Story online—as well they should. While initially it had seemed the studio policy to try and avoid Elgort in promotions as much as possible, he’s now showing up alongside the cast for premieres and interviews.

For the rest of the cast and crew that clearly worked enormously hard on this film—which shines as a labor of love to its musical and cinematic history—West Side Story is emerging as a triumph. Their stunning performances and production should not be canceled out by one man’s inert clam-ness and alleged terribleness. Yet it’s a difficult and enormous elephant in the room to avoid. It’s a damned shame that it’s too late to replace Elgort with Christopher Plummer.

(image: 20th Century Fox)

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Kaila is a lifelong New Yorker. She's written for io9, Gizmodo, New York Magazine, The Awl, Wired, Cosmopolitan, and once published a Harlequin novel you'll never find.