CODA, West Side Story, Marry Me

Movie and TV reviews – “CODA,” “West Side Story,” “Marry Me.”

I’m guessing that many people are trying to catch up with some movies prior to the Academy Awards on March 27. I’ve already put in a few good words for Belfast and Being the Ricardos, but I would like to direct your attention to CODA, which is currently in theaters and streaming on Apple TV+. Like many of you, I was rather late to the party, but CODA is a very engaging, well-acted, well-crafted, moving and uplifting film. A remake of a successful 2014 French film La Familie Belier, CODA (child of deaf adults) is set in Gloucester, Massachusetts, with the teenage Ruby (Emilia Jones, superb both acting and “performing”) helping with the family’s fishing business—and as the only hearing member of the family, she is instrumental when it comes to bargaining with those who might take unfair advantage. However, she has a passion for singing, and her emerging talent captures the attention of the choir director (Eugenio Derbez, masterful in a role that might have succumbed to cliché and easy laughs). The choir director sees a possible future for Ruby at a prestigious music college and offers to train her for the all-important audition; at the same time, her parents would like her to focus on the fishing, with an eye toward Ruby taking over the business.

I know what you’re thinking—this seems mighty clichéd, why invest time in what seems to be a conventional narrative? Well, the beauty of this film is in all the little touches, the exquisite performances, and the heartfelt, hilarious, and offbeat moments along the way. There is the requisite budding romance between Ruby and her singing partner/rival Miles (played with a charming tentativeness by Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), with a first meeting that is interrupted in a most unexpected manner—one that proves both amusing for the audience and harrowing for Ruby.  There are several poignant and uncomfortably funny interactions among the parents (wonderfully acted by Troy Kotsur and Marlee Matlin) and Ruby, especially those moments when they try to bridge the auditory divide between them, as Ruby helps the parents to feel what they cannot hear. If anyone is the “bad guy” here, it’s the impersonal, unfeeling would-be “legislators” who are trying to impose unfair conditions and penalties on the small businesses. What Ruby encourages her family to do is to engage (the town, the opposition) and not to use their deafness as the basis for retreat. By helping her parents to free themselves, Ruby is able to find a bit of freedom for herself, and the final fifteen minutes of CODA are as emotionally satisfying as any film I’ve seen in recent years. (Translation: I was bawling like a child, and loving every minute of it.)


So I finally caught up with Steven Spielberg’s version of West Side Story (now on HBOMax) and I must tell you, it’s a darn good film. For those against the idea of a remake in the first place, all I can say is that as much as I liked the first version, there was room for improvement. Heck, even when the 1961 film was made, changes were made to the stage version (notably the placement of “Gee, Officer Krupke” earlier in the story, so as not to disrupt the mounting tension of the last third) which were pretty effective—and did not alter or diminish the meaning of the original work. By now, you’ve read of some innovations: the threats now are more palpable, from a decaying neighborhood, the advent of gentrification. There is also more of a savagery to some celebrated scenes, including one character’s trip to a store to convey a message.  There is also the casting of Rita Moreno as the shop owner—it’s an homage to the original but also the embodiment of how times and attitudes evolve. Ms. Moreno is also given one of the signature songs, which she delivers plaintively and sincerely. If you’re a fan of the majestic score (music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim), rest assured, it is effectively orchestrated and beautifully sung. And then there’s the dancing: If you can’t get past “dancing gang members,” you may never be swayed, but the vibrant, exuberant, passionate choreography on display here did a lot to suspend my disbelief. And while I have fond memories of Russ Tamblyn and George Chakiris (Riff, Bernardo, respectively), Mike Faist and David Alvarez are both convincing and more palpably dangerous than their 1961counterparts. Ariana DeBose is nominated for an Oscar for her strong performance as Anita, and this reviewer won’t quibble, as she has the acting, singing and dancing chops—it also gives more her opportunities (via Tony Kushner’s screenplay) to convey Anita’s mixed feelings—toward her homeland, toward America, toward being a woman. Rachel Ziegler is a very affecting Maria, and though Ansel Elgort’s Tony is an improvement over Richard Beymer (Ansel can sing, for one thing), the character of Tony (as written and portrayed) is my one quibble…with any version of West Side Story I happen to see. For a character who is lionized by his fellow Jets, Tony is remarkably callow and naïve. (One improvement over the original is in the climactic rumble—especially in terms of Tony’s attempted intervention. Kushner’s writing and Elgort’s playing here help to make this moment a little more credible.) And still…when all of the protagonists sing and rhapsodize about “Tonight,” when an after-party discussion becomes a soaring singing and dancing treatise on “America,” when two forbidden lovers pledge their affection with “One Hand, One Heart,” you may find your heart soaring. 

One more thing: Marry Me is the latest Jennifer Lopez romantic comedy, but it had to wait a long time to be released (for obvious reasons). The concept is a little unlikely: jilted mega-star (Lopez) picks out media-phobic math teacher Owen Wilson out of the audience and impulsively marries him. Naturally a romance ensues. However, it is a quite charming little comedy with a few things to say about the so-called constraints and limitations of fame. It also has a few secret weapons: Sarah Silverman’s enthusiastic guidance counselor, and Owen Wilson himself: likable, engaging, a little sardonic. Lopez herself is fine also. And as an added bonus (at least for me), many of the school scenes were shot at my school, Bishop Loughlin High School in Brooklyn. (Not that this influences how I feel about the film…)

Note to the Academy: Can you please put the Best Editing Award back into the Awards show—savvy filmgoers understand the importance good (and bad) editors) have on the finished product. They can quite literally make or break a film. If you’re looking to save time, surely there must be other ways. I see (and feel) them every time I watch an Academy Awards show.

Mike Peros
Mike Peros is an author whose new book, JOSE FERRER: SUCCESS AND SURVIVAL, the first biography of the Oscar and Tony-winning actor, has just been published by the University Press of Mississippi, while his previous book, DAN DURYEA: HEEL WITH A HEART is now available in paperback.