You can’t have it both ways.
Greta Gerwig wrote and directed Lady Bird with a modest budget and a small cast and it was a wonderful opera prima; fresh, funny, and poignant. Her script for Frances Ha was also breezy and delightful. She follows these works with an ambitious, far more unwieldy adaptation of Little Women, the classic by Louisa May Alcott. Sadly, the enormity of the undertaking seems to sag under the weight, like a cumbersome Victorian crinoline. With a cast of thousands that includes Meryl Streep, Tracy Letts, Saoirse Ronan, Chris Cooper, Louis Garel, Timothee Chalamet, Florence Pugh, and Laura Dern, Little Women is a period piece with many costumes and locations. The movie made me wonder if the source material is finally not aging well. Jane Austen, it isn’t.
I read Little Women in Spanish (Mujercitas) when I was about 12. I remember liking it. To its credit, I still remembered vividly the differentiated, yet archetypal characters of the March sisters. Jo, the independent and spirited writer, made a huge impression on me. Amy was obnoxious, Meg was boring and Beth was sensitive and dying, so she didn’t count.
This adaptation of Little Women has the strange effect of being both fast-paced and, at over 2 hours, extremely long. The effect is not one of heart-racing alacrity but of tedium. This is a problem with the storytelling and particularly with the editing. Many of the scene endings feel truncated as if there is no time to linger because there is still so much to tell. Gerwig opts for a non-chronological structure that moves back and forth as Jo (Saoirse Ronan) remembers the past. I was often confused about the chronology of events. The movie starts out with an alarming degree of saccharine devotion to the book. It gets better when shit happens.
I wonder if the problem with the March family is that they are too good to be true. For all of Meg’s complaining about poverty, Amy is studying painting in Paris, the sisters live in a cozily modest mansion where they create insufferable little plays (this was before Tik Tok and Insta, so it is what it is) and, God forgive me for uttering this phrase, they are swaddled in oodles of white privilege so righteous it’s borderline offensive. They have a rich aunt (Streep, who brings life to her every scene). They live right next to a richer guy (Chris Cooper, excellent) and his dreamy son (Timothee Chalamet, not so much). The absent dad (Bob Odenkirk, odd casting, but always a welcome sight) has volunteered to fight with Lincoln’s army, and the usually estimable Laura Dern is a mother so perfectly virtuous that you want to tear your hair out.
They reminded me of the awful liberal newspaper-owning family in the second season of Succession, all smug self-righteousness and moral superiority — and I am a liberal. Succession is a satire but Little Women takes these people at face value. It’s too in awe of these characters. It pines too hard for a return to decency and kindness; that is, it’s sentimental. For all its heartfelt protestations of feminism and women’s independence, it feels cringingly old-fashioned. In the end, and this won’t spoil the fun for anyone, all the girls find love and happiness with handsome, loving, caring, wonderful men by their sides.
The movie is best when there is conflict. Florence Pugh, who as Amy, gets to play a selfish little brat, manages to be both charming, funny and fully developed as a character. A scene where she is terribly mean to Jo and they get into a big fight is a welcome break from the cloying sweetness of the clan. At the same time, it’s disappointing to find out that Amy has always been in love with Laurie (Timothee Chalamet) because even with scene after scene of them being in the same place at the same time, the movie never bothers to show that she pines for him in silence. Characters are always talking about how they feel about what happens to them but with so much anecdote to cover, there is not much time to show it.
All the sisters are played by non-American actresses, and I assume this may be a budgetary issue. It’s hard to believe one cannot find four young American actresses to play the Marches. The young women are all very good, with the exception of Emma Watson, who is lovely but not a very convincing actress. She is saddled with Meg, who is the most conventional and boring of them all, and doesn’t have the pluck of Florence Pugh to make more of her character. Even Ronan, who is a marvelous actress, feels constrained by one-dimensionality. Fleshing out layers to the March sisters, who are almost stereotypes, requires a much more intimate approach. Everybody lacks serious edge, except Streep, Pugh, and Louis Garrel, who kills as Frederick, a dashingly deadpan Frenchman.
Gerwig has a natural gift for exuberant energy and the movie starts promisingly enough with Jo racing down the streets of New York. She does the Robert Altman thing where all the characters speak on top of each other. But these are just flashes and the movie settles into a lengthy parade of scenes. The music by Alexandre Desplat starts bracingly by channeling Aaron Copland but then devolves into mush. The costumes by Jacqueline Durran are lovely and the movie is pretty but too idealized to be believable.
Gerwig gives a meta aspect to the story, which evolves into the book being written by Jo, who protests all the way to the bank at having to add a happy ending of multiple marriages at the behest of her editor (the great Tracy Letts), complete with a shrewd negotiation about copyright and royalties, which is fun. But I didn’t buy it. Is this a feminist movie or a romantic fantasy? I have no problem with either one of them, but it is unconvincing as both.