Before writer-director Greta Gerwig took her shot, Louisa May Alcott’s classic 1868 novel Little Women had been adapted for the screen six times, including: a silent film in 1917, the George Cukor-directed, Oscar-winning standard-bearer in 1933, and even a contemporary re-telling in 2018. Gerwig first circled the project three years ago as a potential screenwriter, but then her 2017 gem Lady Bird arrived, and she proved she was not only a force to be reckoned with on the page but in the director’s chair, too.
Alas, her spin on Little Women isn’t nearly the level of cinematic achievement as Lady Bird—instead hampered by a haphazard timeline, lousy editing, and a steady procession of pseudo-anachronistic performances from its stellar cast. It all combines into a head-scratcher that frankly squanders some of the promise that Gerwig has built up throughout her career.
Saoirse Ronan leads the way as Jo, the second-eldest sister and the film’s centerpiece, and she’s joined by Emma Watson as Meg, Florence Pugh as Amy, and Eliza Scanlen as Beth. At the outset, Jo is grown up and living in New York as a struggling writer, trying to get the attention of the local publishing house. Through a series of flashbacks (and flash-forwards… and flash-sideways), we watch as her adventures as an adolescent in Civil War-era Massachusetts become the basis for her own novel, which she titles Little Women. (Who knew—Jo was Louisa May all along!)
Gerwig’s all-over-the-place narrative may be confounding not only for those who have somehow never cracked the spine of the book but even for devout fans as well. The novel’s opening Christmas morning scene, for example, comes almost a half-hour into the film, and for no reason in particular. Halfway through Little Women, you may actually find yourself pondering what it would look like if someone cobbled together a Pulp Fiction-style chronological fan-cut of the film, just for kicks.
The point here is that the film can never get any kind of pace going. Instead, we spend too much time trying to decipher clues from anywhere we can get them (haircuts, outfits, props) to figure out where in the timeline we are… that, and trying to keep up with the ham-fisted musical cues that Alexandre Desplat’s intrusive score whacks us repeatedly with.
Ronan joins Tracy Letts (as Jo’s potential publisher), and Chris Cooper (as old Mr. Laurence) as the only things with a pulse for miles in any direction. Watson, still unable to prove that she can do anything memorable that doesn’t involve a boy wizard, seems content to just ho-hum her way through the film. The rock-solid Laura Dern (as Marmee) and great Meryl Streep (as Aunt March) aren’t much better, and the lack-luster performance of the heretofore excellent Timothée Chalamet is enough to question whether he’s been overrated all these years. Even worse, each of them delivers period-appropriate dialogue with contemporary mannerisms and inflections, which ultimately proves to be the most distracting issue of all.
Give Gerwig credit for not taking the easy way out and doing a note-for-note redux of the novel, but she, unfortunately, takes things too far in the opposite direction. Her take on Little Women is an unqualified misfire that will surely join the 1994 Winona Ryder version in the bargain bin of literary adaptations.