A reviewer's confession, number 281: I never read Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. I was too busy leafing through Mad magazine, Classics Illustrated comics, and Henry Gregor Felsen's series of hot rod novels, in the midst of watching Sean Connery and Peter Fonda make the world safe for sequels, from my seat at the Strand.
But that doesn't mean we can't appreciate the latest triumph by actor-turned-filmmaker Greta Gerwig, who recycles Alcott's much-filmed 19th-century literary property reasonably faithfully while never losing sight of her 21st-century objectives. Gerwig's Little Women disarms with charm, from Saoirse Ronan's performance as Jo, most headstrong of the four March sisters of Concord, Mass., all the way down to the cozy New England settings. For most of us, Gerwig's version of the female-empowerment classic is all the Alcott we'll ever need to see.
Jo, a budding novelist with ink-stained fingers, suffers the insulting tone of her New York publisher (Tracy Letts, the most dependable horse's ass in movies today) but is determined to make the big time on her own terms. She may yearn for the bohemian life but also shows promise as a sharp businesswoman who can hold her own on the dance floor. Naturally, none of her sisters understands her. But of course they love her. This is the type of movie where the siblings pose in a pile, like sleepy puppies, in the lap of their mother (Laura Dern).
Most interesting of the other March sisters is Amy (Florence Pugh), a budding painter with delusions of grandeur, who happens to be a bit selfish and cruel. Amy gets along famously with their catty Aunt March (Meryl Streep), a busybody giver of advice. Also on the scene is the sisters' designated harmless male buddy, Laurie the rich kid (Timothée Chalamet), non-threatening in the extreme. One complaint: The action keeps flashing forward to show how the sisters' plans have succeeded. Wrong move — spoils the surprises. Other than that, a warm, comfy character-acting picnic in the snow.