A Mess of a Movie

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Could there be a happier Christmas movie than Little Women, with its story of generosity, kindness, familial love, and individuality? And yet — do we really need another version of Louisa May Alcott’s masterpiece? It has been committed to film at least seven times, including versions starring Katharine Hepburn; June Allyson and Peter Lawford; Christian Bale and a slew of A-list women; and a sadly modernized mishmash just last year that grossed barely a million dollars. Nevertheless, here we are again, with yet another LW, this one purporting to bring Jo out of the shadows as a true feminist (as though Alcott hadn’t shone that light on Jo in her original telling, 150 years ago).

There is much for a libertarian to love about Alcott’s Little Women, including (some might say “despite”) its theme of voluntary sacrifice and charitable service. I happen to appreciate that Marmee teaches her girls to care for the poor from their own meager goods rather than expecting a government agency to do it (or worse, suggesting that the poor “got what they deserved”). Moreover, the wealthy landowner Mr. Lawrence (Chris Cooper) is kind and generous toward the March clan, rewarding their generosity toward others with generosity of his own. He may be rich, but he is not evil.

This Little Women purports to bring Jo out of the shadows as a true feminist, as though Alcott hadn’t shone that light on Jo in her original telling, 150 years ago.

In addition, Marmee (Laura Dern) demonstrates prudence, resourcefulness, and self-reliance as the head of the household while her husband (Bob Odenkirk) is serving in the Union army during the Civil War.

A side note: director and screenwriter Greta Gerwig couldn’t resist a few digs at modern white privilege, so she inserts an exchange between two schoolchildren about the war. It goes like this:

School girl 1: “Father says we should let them keep their labor. It’s none of our business.”

School girl 2: “Everyone benefits from their economic system. Why should only the South be punished?”

In another exchange, borrowing liberally from Michelle Obama, Gerwig has Marmee say to a black woman caring for wounded soldiers alongside her: “I spent my whole life ashamed of my country.”

Black woman: “You should still be ashamed.”Alcott gave us a story of resilience, accountability, entrepreneurship, and market forces, regardless of gender.

Alcott gave us a story of resilience, accountability, entrepreneurship, and market forces, regardless of gender.

Me: Ugh! Such anachronisms. No one talked like this back then, least of all schoolchildren or black women chastising white women.

But back to the reasons a libertarian should like this story: Marmee teaches her girls at home, another aspect of the story that should appeal to libertarians. She allows them the freedom to develop their own interests and talents — no public schools deprive them of their time or assign them inane homework that saps their creativity. Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is an accomplished musician, Amy (Florence Pugh) a budding artist, Jo (Saoirse Ronan) a skilled writer, and Meg (Emma Watson) an aspiring actress who loves to wear pretty dresses, and attend pretty parties. She also wants to get married and have babies, and in my opinion that’s perfectly all right (though not in this film, where marriage equals misery). Aunt March (Meryl Streep) tells Jo, “No one makes their own way in this world, especially a woman — unless you marry well.” Yet Marmee and Jo are making their way quite nicely. Alcott gave us a story of resilience, accountability, entrepreneurship, and market forces, regardless of gender.

There is also much to love about this movie, despite its storytelling flaws, especially its light and airy musical score by Alexandre Desplat, its sumptuous outdoor settings, its period costumes, and its artistic cinematography. Gerwig often places her actors as though for a painting or a portrait, almost like a Mary Cassatt or Jack Vettriano painting. At times it can seem a bit schmaltzy, as when she frames a proposal scene with overhanging trees that resemble a Valentine heart. But I rather appreciate the effect, which echoes Alcott’s sometimes-schmaltzy Victorian language, whether that was Gerwig’s intent or not.

But is this a satisfying interpretation of Alcott’s work? Notwithstanding its rave reviews, I think not.

Worst of all, Gerwig presents the shocking climaxes first and then tells us the relationships among the characters later, defusing our emotional response.

Most unsatisfactory is the disjointed telling of the story, with its self-inflicted spoilers, clunky flashbacks, and complicated scene changes. The film begins at the end, with Amy in Europe as Aunt March’s companion — so the audience will not experience the unexpected heartbreak when Jo learns that Amy has been chosen to take her place on the wonderful journey. Laurie (Timothee Chalamet) is also in Europe, where Amy calls him a “vain, lazy, drunken sot.” And he is indeed a falling-down drunk at that point in this movie. This is the feminist version of LW, after all; I guess we can’t have our first impression of our leading man as the kind, generous, noble friend he has been to the March girls throughout their childhoods.

I happened to bring a visitor from Argentina to see the film with me. He had heard of the novel but had never read it or seen a film adaptation. He confessed that he could not follow the story — he knew there were flashbacks, but it was hard to tell which scenes were in which era, because Gerwig did not bother to provide visual markers — the hairstyles, settings and clothing were virtually the same in both the future and the past. Worst of all, Gerwig presents the shocking climaxes first and then tells us the relationships among the characters later, defusing our emotional response. We learn of Beth’s illness before we even know that she is a sister. We learn that Jo has rejected Laurie’s proposal before we have ever seen them together. We see Amy’s treachery in burning Jo’s manuscript before we see the tender love Jo has for her youngest sister, etc. Gerwig then quickly cuts to the past, where she provides brief glimpses of the relationships leading up to those moments.

My Argentinian friend was utterly lost. All he saw was a bunch of women bickering with one another. He didn’t even realize they were supposed to be teenagers because the actresses were all in their mid-20s. The only reason it worked for me at all is that I could tap into my remembered emotions from having read the book. Many young girls were in the audience with their mothers, presumably experiencing the story for the first time. I felt sorry for them. All they got out of it is that marriage is bad.

Uncontrolled laughter seems to be Hollywood’s go-to action nowadays for portraying joy; the more you laugh, the happier you must be.

Gerwig’s direction is clunky too. She chose to cast older actresses for the four sisters; then, to portray them in the flashbacks, she resorted to whiny petulance and temper tantrums to make them seem young. This does not work, especially for 12-year-old Amy, who is portrayed by the voluptuous Florence Pugh. Meanwhile, Timothee Chalamat as Laurie has a very boyish face and physique, and his head is so much smaller than Saoirse Ronan’s that they look almost freakish together.

The kind and noble Marmee is laughably portrayed as well. To demonstrate the joy and fun of the March household, Gerwig directed Dern to laugh uncontrollably much of the time, even at the simplest moments. (Uncontrolled laughter seems to be Hollywood’s go-to action nowadays for portraying joy; the more you laugh, the happier you must be.) Dern’s giggles create a caricature that feels more like a 1930s Mammy than the strong and gentle Marmee, which is unfortunate, because Dern is capable of so much more with so much less — a comforting touch, a beaming countenance, a disapproving glance could have been much more effective, as seen in her portrayal of the teacher in October Sky. She is allowed to display her full range only once — at the death of her beloved Beth. In most scenes she is a giggling goon.

Gerwig even failed with Meryl Streep, whose wooden performance as Aunt March made me long for the acerbic wit of Maggie Smith as the deliciously officious dowager in Downton Abbey. She delivers her lines with all the enthusiasm of a driver delivering a pizza. And if, as she and Jo claim, women had no rights to property in 19th-century America unless they acquired it themselves as single women, how is it that Aunt March inherited the family estate rather than her brother, the father of those little women? Now there’s a backstory I would love to explore!

My biggest disappointment is with Jo’s character. Not with Ronan’s portrayal — she’s fine. More than fine. But Gerwig, like Alcott, only skirted what I think is Jo’s true nature. Alcott hinted at Jo’s sexual orientation; Jo has a masculine name, while her love interest, Laurie, has a girl’s name. Jo usually plays the pirate and other masculine roles in the girls’ attic theatricals. And of course, Jo becomes the family breadwinner. I have long thought that Alcott planted these clues to hint that Jo is gay, in an era when hints were as far as a writer could go.

Gerwig claims to have created “a Little Women for the 21st century,” but in my opinion, she failed on all counts.

Gerwig almost gets there. In the movie, Laurie joins “a club for girls” when he is admitted to the March girls’ thespian society. Jo and Laurie often wear the same clothes, though not at the same time. When Jo rejects his proposal, she tells him, “I can’t love you as you want me to. I don’t know why. I can’t. I’ve tried it and I’ve failed.” And when Meg decides to marry, Jo pleads with her, “Don’t do it! Stay with me! You will be bored of him in two years — and we will be interesting forever!” She adds, “I would rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe.” Yes, I thought. This time they will have the courage to get it right. Jo will come out of the closet at last.

And yet, for all the preening about the oppression of marriage — despite Amy arguing with Laurie, “Don’t tell me marriage isn’t an economic proposition because it is! . . . If I marry, my money would belong to my husband and my children would be his property,” and Aunt March sighing, “Until [Amy] marries someone obscenely wealthy it is up to me to keep the family afloat” — the conflict and climax of the movie resides in Jo discovering that she loves Laurie after all. “Women have minds and they have souls as well as hearts and they have ambition,” she admits, “but I’m so lonely!” And so she writes Laurie the love letter telling him she wants to accept his proposal of marriage. (Of course, we’ve known since the first scene of the movie that Laurie and Amy are already loving it up over in Europe, so we don’t experience Jo’s devastation when she learns the truth.)

Gerwig gives in to marketing pressure, and ends her film with a traditional love story, just as Jo gives in to the same marketing pressure from her publisher, Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts), to marry off the protagonist of her novel, and Alcott succumbed to the same pressure to provide a husband for her alter ego, Jo. Alcott’s Mr. Bhaer is old enough to be Jo’s father. It’s a marriage of convenience, rather than romance, that was not unusual for women who wanted to hide their sexual orientation within a socially acceptable marriage. Gerwig betrayed Alcott, however, by making Jo gigglingly schoolgirlish as she runs after her Friedrich Bhaer, played by the devilishly handsome — and young! — Louis Garrel, to proclaim her love, while her sisters giggle joyfully in the carriage.

Gerwig claims to have created “a Little Women for the 21st century,” but in my opinion, she failed on all counts. She adds little that we don’t already know about women’s economic rights and capabilities; she utterly rejects marriage as a viable choice for rational and talented women; she then marries off her lesbian protagonist to the sexiest man in the movie. Good grief.

There was a smattering of applause at the screening I attended, probably led by die-hard ’70s-era feminists who cheer anything made for, by, and about women. But do the young girls in your life a favor: give them a copy of the book, and keep them away from this movie.

Little Women, directed by Greta Gerwig. Columbia Pictures, 2019, 135 minutes.




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