Everything about the 2019 version of “Little Women” seems like it would be a slam dunk. There’s the talented Greta Gerwig at the helm, both writing and directing her sophomore effort after her phenomenal 2017 film “Lady Bird.” There’s the classic Louisa May Alcott novel that’s being adapted for the screen for a new generation. There’s a stellar cast of ridiculously accomplished actors, including Saoirse Ronan, Laura Dern, Florence Pugh, Timothée Chalamet, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Tracy Letts, Eliza Scanlen, and Emma Watson. My heart is nearly breaking because, even after a courtesy re-watch, almost everything about this film fails in some way.
The timeless story is given a smart polish by Gerwig, who remains mostly true to the source material but also incorporates a fresh retelling of a beloved piece of literature. The story follows the lives of the four March sisters, Jo (Ronan), Amy (Pugh), Beth (Scanlen), and Meg (Watson), as they come of age in the aftermath of the Civil War. All of the girls are very different, but their family bond keeps them strong during tumultuous times.
The film is far too bookish, even by literature-to-screen adaptation standards. It’s bland and boring, which will make you yearn to walk out of the theater and pick up a copy of the book instead. I feel for anyone in the audience who has not read the literary classic, because this movie will thoroughly confuse the beejezus out of those who don’t already know the story.
The movie is twee and messy, much like Gerwig herself. The project feels like the writer / director, but not in a good way. There’s an awkward charm that’s cute at first, but all of the small delights soon fade. The narrative jumps around in time too often and is confusing (especially because the actors don’t look the 7 years younger that they’re supposed to be in certain sequences). It becomes increasingly hard to keep up with the timeline of events. This method of storytelling doesn’t even keep the story moving quickly, as the pacing still feels sluggish.
The actors give it their all, yet the movie still seems stagy and stiff. There’s a lot of sitting around and laughing, crying, and hugging. Ronan is wonderful as Jo, as is Pugh as Amy. Both are perfectly cast. The other actors, while extremely competent, lack charisma.
There are a few things to like about this film, including the attention to period detail in both the set design and costumes, and a delightful original score by Alexandre Desplat. But although the film is detailed, it barely scratches the surface of these characters and their story.
Anyone sentimental about the original source material should prepare for disappointment.