“Little Women” ( 2019)

Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel “Little Women” has a disparaging title for 21st century women. Granted the absent Marsh father, a Civil War chaplain, calls his four young daughters “little women” instead of “girls”; but, director Greta Gerwig does all she can to show us mature women. I miss not seeing children huddled around their mother, Marmee, yet Gerwig has given filmgoers something more: a quartet of passionate, rational women with discernment and heart to be loved again.

The film begins with Tracy Letts’ feet on his New York publisher’s desk and a fat cigar in his mouth. He orders Jo Marsh (Saoirse Ronan) to sit before he tells her that he will accept her manuscript with alterations. He espouses that “morals don’t sell”. Letts has a gleam in his eye as he pontificates on spicing her story up and making certain that her heroine either marries or dies. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s “ The Vindication Of Women” (1798) comes to mind eighty years earlier. Director and screenwriter Greta Gerwig reminds women that we had not come much further in 1865.

“Little Women” (2019) jumps back and forth in time and in place. The screen tells us it is seven years earlier and we are in Concord, Massachusetts. Here we are reintroduced to the four Marsh girls and their mother, Marmee ( Laura Dern). Meg, the eldest is the most conventional. Emma Watson does little to draw out her character. Saoirse Ronan is stunning as Jo, as is Florence Pugh as the youngest, Amy. Pugh’s Amy is, in fact, is my favorite. Her deep voice and psychological insight made her wiser than her years. Timothee C. did not seem her match. Amy, also, held her own in the scenes with Meryl Streep ( Auntie Marsh). Amy comes to life not as a selfish and jealous baby sister of Jo, but as an brutally honest and insightful woman. Beth (Eliza Scanlen) looked too healthy for death, but the swelling music of composer and conductor Alexandre Desplat helps. The windy beach scene with Jo is grand. Beth tells her sister that she is not afraid of death. For Beth, death is like the tide going out very slowly.

The cinematography and score are lush. The film’s start slow. Too many long scenes packed with kite-flying, ice-skating, play-acting, piano playing, and painting. I noticed lots of fake-joy on female faces in Christmas scenes. And Jo’s shoulder-thrusting walk got on my nerves. The book binding and gold-gilt embossing of Jo’s first book is more evocative and one of my favorite scenes. Chris Cooper’s Mr. Lawrence stood out in the few male roles, as did Tracy Letts. Timothee Chalamet’s Laurie was too foppish for me. All in all,Greta Gerwig’s production has received more positive press than the final production warrants. A nice walk down memory lane.

“Demolition”

A little patch of off-beat pairings is good for the soul. And who doesn’t love Jake Gyllenhaal and Naomi Watts ?  Throw in Chris Cooper and a theme about paying attention to our emotions, and we have an adult version of “Inside Out” and “Frozen”.

In Brian Sipe’s script it is easier to block feelings with narcissistic wants like M&M’s, sort of like re-channeling your toddler with treats, than it is to honestly feel and deal with guilt or grief or unhappiness. Jake Gyllenhaal is both inattentively robotic and jive-dancingly free in this film. Getting between the two is our story arc.

Gyllenhaal is , yet again, another soulless, financial investment firm bigshot, who is being weaned in his father-in-law’s ( Chris Cooper’s) company. There is at first an almost sinister aspect in his inability to express any kind of caring. A beautifully filmed accident scene leaves his wife Julia ( Heather Lind ) dead. Stop action images offer us an ER room’s bloody sheets and vacant crash cart.

This is not a traditional comedy, but a film trying to document the struggle some have in finding  their identity and their way. Davis Mitchell (Gyllenhaal) follows a number of roads, most of them easy and marked ” Dead End” and ” Wrong Way”. In one terrifying scene, we think he is tricking the teen-age son of Naomi Watts ( Karen) into shooting him in the chest.

Davis verbalizes that he never really knew his wife, and that he didn’t love her. Her image reoccurring in puddles and hazed mirrors contradicts this. What we know is that he doesn’t pay attention ,yet  he is self-absorbed with his workouts and in his grooming. He even shaves his chest hair.  Oft naked physically on screen, he is never naked emotionally. We even see Gyllenhaal, as Davis, sitting on the john with his toes turned in – retentive to a fault.

In a script that reminds me of  “Her” ( reviewed Feb. 2015)  in its loneliness and in its obsession, Naomi Watts pays keen attention to a series of self-confessional letters directed at a vending machine company. She is the customer complaint department in her boss/boyfriend’s business. She, as a pot-smoking responder, feels his pain and admires his honesty. They stalk each other and have us wondering if “soul-mates” are made for us to find. The song “Crazy On You” is the undercurrent.

Chris Cooper, as Karen’s father and as Davis’s boss, regrets that there is no word like “widow” or “orphan” in our language to address the loss of a child. ” We need a word for this.”, Cooper intones. Davis sees everything as a metaphor: “I am the uprooted tree”, ” the cold front that collided…”. More letter writing ensues, ” Dear Vending Company, there is something else…” Davis’ self-disclosure is pathetically funny. We know he has caring parents ( they may drive a station wagon), though no friends surface. He believes that like a bad gait, if you wish to fix something, you have to tear it all apart. Here the demolition begins literally with Davis buying a bulldozer on e-bay and taking his shiny, modern home down. Sledge hammers are used with abandon as  the refrigerator, office computer and bathroom light fixtures and stall doors are broken down or dissembled. Karen’s son, Chris ( Judah Lewis ), adds another dimension of anger and angst. Friendship is developed, something they both need.

French Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee , who also directed Reese Witherspoon in “Wild”, ( reviewed  Jan. 2015 ) believes in redemption and changing for the better. Audiences feel the upward draft, and you smile as you leave the theater. Quirky and ultimately satisfying.