It is beautifully boring.
"Little Women" is a good movie whose fires are banked. It's wonderfully rendered, but devoid of surprise. We never see the complexities of the characters that could create so much harmony in such a harsh world. It is beautifully boring.
The film is acted wonderfully by six women and one man who understand the affectionate esteem Americans feel for Louisa May Alcott's generational novel. Winona Ryder, Trini Alvarado, Samantha Mathis, Claire Danes, and Kirsten Dunst have managed to abandon the gestures and inflections of today in order to step backward from their generation into Civil War Concord. In happy collusion with Susan Sarandon, who was born with perfect pitch, they seem just right in the beautiful old March family homestead, very comfortable in a time of parental authority and childhood innocence.
Christian Bale is thoroughly charming as Laurie, the neighbor who is destined to be part of the family. Director Gillian Armstrong has done the improbable by catching and holding the tone of Alcott's time. This is no mean feat when we remember that just last year, "Ethan Frome" was hobbled by the contemporary accents of its cast.
It is not easy to do this well by a cherished novel from an earlier time. Why, then, does watching it feel so flat? Why does it annoy us to watch everyone do the right thing -- bravely. It is a time of neighbors and parlor pianos, of Christmas carols sung by candlelight on the way upstairs to bed on Christmas Eve. We are swamped with an excess of goodness. Have we become so cynical that it is uncomfortable to watch family warmth? Have the ingredients of another time become the stuff of derision in ours? I don't think so.
More probably, we know that the book and the movie, like a family album, holds the best of times. Surely Jo's determination to become a New York writer sparked controversy in the 1860s; a family that did so well on its own while their patriarch was off fighting probably had trouble reabsorbing him at war's end. This movie needs a little of the frisson and sizzle that infuse families that harbor independent spirits.
Jo, after all, did become Louisa May Alcott, and it wasn't easy. Forced by the times to write under an androgynous pseudonym, she churned out stories for newspapers and magazines, including one where the protagonists meet at a hashish party. After "Little Women" brought financial security to the family, Alcott continued to write the autobiographical novels that became classics for children, while her father dabbled in failed educational ventures. "Little Women" needs more of that spirit. To enjoy it, we need to fill in the blanks with some healthy, imagined discord.
Whatever else happens to this movie, it will be instantly adopted as the new standard for family values. If Newt Gingrich thinks "Boys Town" is the flagship movie for the 90s, wait till he catches this one.
Film Critic: JOAN ELLIS
Word Count: 498
Studio: Columbia 1h58m
Copyright (c) Illusion
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