There are certain things you expect from any film or television version of Little Women: coltish enthusiasm courtesy of Jo; homespun wisdom courtesy of Marmee; buckets of tears, our tears, courtesy of Beth thanking Mr. Laurence for the piano and eventually succumbing to terminal illness. (I'm presuming that plot points from a 150-year-old novel can't possibly qualify as spoilers.) One thing you don't expect, however, is the unexpected, which turns out to be what writer/director Greta Gerwig's glorious, exceedingly original take on Louisa May Alcott delivers in spades.
It's not like Gerwig doesn't give us what we already know, adore, and want from this beloved tale of the March sisters that transpires over a seven-year period during and after the Civil War. Indeed, it's all here: Jo accidentally burning off eldest sibling Meg's hair; youngest sibling Amy tossing Jo's manuscript into the fire and falling through a frozen pond; Jo breaking her best friend Laurie's heart as she turns down his marriage proposal. (Again – 150 years! Not a spoiler!) The difference, though, is that unlike Alcott, Gerwig introduces us to her little women not when they're little, but when they're fully grown women. And this seemingly simple presentational shift leads to so many beautiful, unanticipated found moments – echoes and foreshadowing and familiar lines that now sound revelatory – that even if this is the fifth or tenth or hundredth time you're encountering Little Women, Gerwig and her extraordinary cast and creative team make it all feel almost brand-spanking-new.
Opening with a scene of the adult Jo (Saoirse Ronan) attempting to sell one of her adventure stories to a New York publisher (Tracy Letts) who has little time or patience for female writers, Gerwig subsequently presents the Marches' girlhood experiences as flashbacks within a post-war narrative. Beyond Jo's struggles as a fledgling author in a crowded boarding house, early sequences showcase Meg (Emma Watson) in a loving yet financially strapped union with John Brooke (James Norton), gifted painter Amy (Florence Pugh) attending art school in Paris, and frail Beth (Eliza Scanlen) still living in the Marches' family home with the doting mother nicknamed “Marmee” (Laura Dern). Only after we've had significant time to glean who the Marches are does Gerwig begin revealing who they were, with Jo flooded with memories of her teen years in Connecticut while traveling to visit the ailing Beth. In another film, this would be par for the course – a meditative trek home peppered with childhood flashbacks. Yet Gerwig's decision to scramble the order of events in frequently filmed material that is generally presented chronologically is both risky and brave, and even those who worship at the altar of Alcott and don't want their iconic text messed with might have to concede that this change in perspective yields loads of terrific things.
One of them is that it eliminates the built-in dilemma of casting actors who suit the older versions of the March sisters yet aren't inherently realistic as 13- to 18-year-olds. By instead introducing them as adult women, it's far easier, in the flashbacks, to accept Watson, Ronan, Scanlen, and Pugh, given that they're essentially giving us play-acted versions of the younger Marches, much like the play-acted representations of pirates and bearded businessmen the girls portray in Jo's exuberant theatricals. Gerwig's structure allows us to see Civil War-era Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy as Jo herself does in her memory – siblings with grown-up features re-creating, in Jo's mind, remembrances from their past.
No one benefits from this approach more than Pugh, the 23-year-old British talent who's asked, for much of her screen time, to play a bratty diva just out of her tweens. I take that back: Some people actually do benefit from the approach more. Thankfully, though, those people are us, because Pugh is utterly spectacular – hilarious and infuriating and touching in ways that I'm not sure any screen Amy has ever been before. With her impeccable timing, inventive physicality, and throaty voice that suggests a long-long relative of Bea Arthur, Pugh is endlessly entertaining as young Amy, taking a beat after the shock of Jo's newly shorn locks to tell Beth, “Don't ever do that.” Yet Pugh's 20-year-old Amy also astounds, expressing personality as a force of nature and explaining, in a gorgeously written speech, the young woman's quest to marry well as a disheartening yet necessary act of survival. It's a superb breakthrough performance – and one landing, after Pugh's similarly thrilling work in Fighting with My Family and Midsommar, at the tail end of a phenomenal breakthrough year.
The other March sisters are played more as you tend to remember them from previous Little Women adaptations – and this trio proves, there's nothing wrong with that. Gerwig's Lady Bird muse Ronan is fully in her self-assured element as the headstrong, emotionally fragile Jo; her thoughtful, layered performance doesn't compete with your memories of Katharine Hepburn and Winona Ryder and so forth so much as movingly complement them. Scanlen, who was memorably off-putting and scary in the recent HBO mini-series Sharp Objects, delivers Beth's requisite heartbreak with unfussy ease, and is given just enough odd bits of business – such as “feeding” a porcelain doll at the breakfast table – to make you register Beth as the infantilized March who, sadly, will never grow up. Watson, meanwhile, has had more challenging roles and has delved deeper into her portrayals (particularly in The Bling Ring). But she's incandescently lovely as the agreed-upon loveliest of the Marches, radiating so much hard-won joy that even when the future looks bleak for Meg and John, you sense the young woman's beatific peace – Meg's inner radiance – that will see this impoverished couple through.
Given the actors' sterling interpretive gifts and Gerwig's generous direction, all four of Alcott's little women feel both believably of-the-period and satisfyingly timeless. They also have company: Dern suppressing Marmee's impatience and futile rage beneath a mask of unwavering geniality (the performer is thunderously good whenever Gerwig allows her a moment to let the mask drop); Chris Cooper personifying decency itself as the hushed, haunted Mr. Laurence; Meryl Streep nibbling the scenery as an Aunt March whose put-downs, you sense, are nothing compared to the insults she's blithely unleashing in her head.
To be sure, not all of Gerwig's casting decisions are equally inspired. Timothée Chalamet, another Lady Bird veteran, is physically witty but too lightweight a presence as Laurie, Bob Odenkirk's ironic cadences are too distractingly modern (and, arguably, too inappropriate) for Mr. March, and Gerwig cheats on the material – and an inherent obstacle in the material – by having the middle-aged German grump Friedrich Bhaer played by the handsome young French actor Louis Garrel. (It's a bit like having Robert Pattinson play Cyrano de Bergerac without a prosthetic nose.) But Gerwig's inspirations are far more numerous than her stumbles. Norton makes John Brooke a lightly abashed sweetheart. Jayne Houdyshell, her speaking voice almost lower than Pugh's, is ideal as the tireless servant Hannah. And Letts, whom I thought was literally perfect as Ronan's dad in Lady Bird, is so fantastically imposing and riotous as Jo's prospective editor Mr. Dashwood that I'd happily watch an entire spin-off movie devoted to the guy. There were a lot of laughs at my Little Women screening, and none of them were bigger than the one following Dashwood's grouchy retort to his evidently long-suffering wife – a line I'm reasonably sure you won't find in Alcott.
Which brings us to the most startlingly unique thing about Gerwig's adaptation: the ending. We all know how this thing concludes, right? Beth passes, Jo opens a school, Jo winds up with Friedrich. (For the last time: Not! A! Spoiler!) But while, in many ways, the filmmaker has made a wonderfully traditional Little Women – complete with sublime costumes by Jacqueline Durran and an alternately playful and melancholy score by composer Alexandre Desplat – Gerwig has also forged her own path. And in her movie's final minutes, that path veers excitingly away from Alcott's and more toward what Alcott's text meant, and continues to mean, as new generations become exposed to its unmistakable, unmistakably feminist power. Barring the times in which I was crying, and sometimes even then, I smiled all throughout Gerwig's latest offering. But it was a grin that was just shy of an active giggle that accompanied my viewing of Little Women's final minutes, a clever gamble that put everything we'd seen, and have long known about this tale, into a soaring new context that I wouldn't dream of giving away. Even after a century-and-a-half with the Marches, some events simply shouldn't be spoiled.
Written and directed by brothers Benny and Josh Safdie, the beat-the-clock drama Uncut Gems may be the year's most expertly crafted movie that I absolutely can't stand. Consider it the Wolf of Wall Street of 2019 (and a film likely to enthrall much of the same fan base). Set, for reasons passing my understanding, in 2012, the Safdies' follow-up to their far less annoying Good Time casts Adam Sandler as the frenzied Howard Ratner, a motor-mouthed Manhattan jeweler and inveterate gambler who gets his hands on a large black opal presumably worth a million dollars, and who consequently keeps losing track of the Ethiopian treasure as bookies, enforcers, his wife, his mistress, and NBA star Kevin Garnett and singer/songwriter The Weekend (playing themselves) make Howard's life a living hell. For me, Uncut Gems was the living hell. It's not that I inherently don't care about jewelry procurement, sports betting, irredeemably thuggish behavior, and Adam Sandler, though heaven knows all those things are true. It's that the Safdies, here, are too good at their jobs, delivering a work so relentlessly believable in its moral rot and screeching urban chaos that I didn't want to spend more than five seconds in anyone's presence. So, ya know, good for the Safdies, I suppose. Not so good for me.
There were scenes that I admired, if none that I actually enjoyed, among them an anxious Passover Seder and a live-auction bid that goes stunningly wrong. (Both of these sequences find Judd Hirsch doing some of his shrewdest underplaying in decades.) The acting is generally noteworthy, with Sandler going for physical and emotional broke and his well-cast co-stars including Julia Fox and Idina Menzel (despite both being cast, in alpha-male-movie manner, as hateful shrews), Keith Williams Richards, Eric Bogosian, and the reliably magnetic LaKeith Stanfield. Adding Darius Khondji's richly textured cinematography and Benny Safdie's and co-writer Ronald Bronstein's panic-attack editing, the Safdies' latest is definitely an impressive technical feat, conveying Howard's increasing desperation and damnation through visual and aural means and effectively putting us inside the very skin of a combustible jerk. Whoop-de-doo. I was still exhausted by Howard's incessant stupidity and miserable for nearly the entire length of this bitter, joyless descent into existential decay – a movie whose professional style can't disguise the fundamental dullness of its everyone-is-crap-so-why-not-take-advantage ugliness. One of the first sights we're “treated to” in Uncut Gems is a live play-by-play as a doctor explains the on-screen findings during Howard's colonoscopy, and the symbolism has to be intentional, especially considering the procedure has nothing to do with the narrative. It's almost too fitting a metaphor, though, for a movie this committed to crawling up its own ass.
SPIES IN DISGUISE
And so, another year of movie reviewing ends, this one with an animated slapstick in which a secret agent voiced by Will Smith turns into a pigeon. Sounds about right. As silly Hollywood outings go, though, particularly during the holidays, directors Nick Bruno's and Troy Quane's cheeky, spirited adventure-comedy isn't bad at all. The Bond-esque mayhem is zippy and imaginative, the obvious sentiment is at least handled with a fair degree of subtlety, and there are loads of amusing vocal actors who are fun to listen to, among them Smith (whose most inventive bits sound improvised), Tom Holland, and a solid support team featuring Rashida Jones, Rachel Brosnahan, Masi Oka, Karen Gillan, Reba McEntire, and a legitimately threatening-sounding Ben Mendelsohn. Inspired by the short film Pigeon Impossible, which would've been a way-better title, Spies in Disguise is exactly what you expect it to be, and even a bit more if you don't expect weapons employing cascading glitter and über-cute kitten GIFs, detailed descriptions of pigeon anatomy (behold the cloaca), and the sight of a 500-pound, heavily tattooed Chinese gangster dropping his towel and exposing his naked rear end. As you'd no doubt be told by my five-year-old movie-going companion who stayed alert and laughed throughout the whole movie, this guy was also responsible for the funniest sentence in all of 2019: “I peed in the pool.” Maybe you had to be there, but it was pretty damned funny.