January 5, 2020

Little Women (2019)
Grade: 49/100

Director: Greta Gerwig
Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson

What it's about. The classic family novel by Louisa May Alcott, set during the 1860s. The father, Bob Odenfield, is off fighting the Civil War, leaving mother Laura Dern ostensibly in charge of the household. There are four daughters, Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Meg (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh), and Beth (Eliza Scanlen), all unmarried young adults. Jo, an aspiring writer, is a paid companion of mettlesome Aunt March (Meryl Streep).

Jo has a crush on the predictably dashing young man next door, Laurie (Timothée Chalamet). He lives with his wealthy grandfather, Chris Cooper, the stereotypical curmudgeon with a heart of gold. Everyone expects that Jo and Laurie will marry, but she turns down his proposal and moves away, where she meets German professor Bhaer (Louis Garrel).

Jo returns home, Beth dies slowly from scarlet fever, dad comes home safely from the Civil War, Meg marries glum tutor John Brooke (James Norton), and Amy begins a romance with Laurie.

How others will see it. Released just in time for Christmas, Little Women has not been a blockbuster but has already received two Golden Globe nominations, including Best Actress for rising star Ronan.

The movie is beloved at RottenTomatoes.com, and has an extremely high user rating of 8.3 (out of 10) at imdb.com. Predictably, women over 45 grade the film higher (at 8.4) than do men over 45 (who grade it 7.7), but even the latter score is lofty. The user reviews do have the expected occasional complaints about differences with the book, or unflattering comparisons with the 1994 film starring Winona Ryder.

But most viewers are bowled over. "The best version", "powerful performance by Saoirse Ronan", "the adaptation that Alcott would have liked best." Even films from books written a century and a half ago bend to the will of post-feminism, with a female director and a quarter of wonderful, beautiful young women that display their independence and importance.

How I felt about it. While watching the latest A-list feature of "Little Women", I was for some reason reminded of the bathetic 1977 Barry Manilow hit "Weekend in New England." The song has a line "When will this strangulan end?" Online lyrics prove that "strangulan" is "strong yearning", but to me, at least, it sounds more like "strangling." Of greater relevance, watching this movie feels like slow strangulation, over the course of its unendurable two hour and fifteen minute run.

Little Women is by no means the dullest film I have ever seen. That "honor" probably goes to Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Buxelles, though I don't compile lists of the biggest snoozers. But Little Women is unceasingly dull, no matter how high its user ratings, or how many trophies it gathers on the festival circuit.

Admittedly, it is nice to look at. The costumes are beautiful, the sets are convincing, and if you turned off the sound and played with a cellphone while looking up occasionally, the film would at least have the look of a movie worthy of entertaining your young adult female visitor.

Yet the film, regardless of its production quality, is relentlessly dull. The problem appears to be feminism. All the women have to be perfect all of the time, save for one scene where Amy maliciously burns Jo's manuscript. Wouldn't it be human if she remained jealous and petty, but instead she begs forgiveness just a few hours later.

Problems abound. The film veers back and forth from before the Civil War to after, as if it is Pulp Fiction. There are too many close ups, as if emotion can only be conveyed by an attractive young face. The women are supposedly poor, yet live in a big house and wear magnificent clothes despite paltry indications of a reliable family income. Beth is supposed to be a child, yet is played by an actress out of her teens. Emma Watson is nearly 30 and hardly qualifies as "little." Amy falls into a frozen pond and is somehow able to climb out of the 34 degree water by holding onto a short branch when Jo and Laurie should be petrified that they themselves would fall in too merely by approaching her. Amy is supposed to be frivolous and immature, but is not.

The unusually beautiful Meg marries a lifeless and poor older man, while Jo marries a distraught German professor who severely criticizes her work because her family is so anxious to marry her off. The director and Meryl Streep forget that Aunt March should be a comic character. Laura Dern is hardly there, Bob Odenkirk is too old to be the father of teenagers, and Chris Cooper as the purportedly foreboding Mr. Laurence is a pushover from the start.

Little Women also compares unfavorably with the previous Hollywood incarnations from 1933, 1949, and 1994. But, again, the biggest obstacle to completing the film is that it is boring.