JOKER – NIHILISTIC PLOT WASTES JOAQUIN PHOENIX’ INCREDIBLE PERFORMANCE

 

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF JOKER REVIEW

SHORT TAKE:

Joaquin Phoenix’ mesmerizing and brilliant performance as Joker is wasted in the nihilistic plot of this realism grounded, extremely disturbing, origin story.

WHO SHOULD GO:

ABSOLUTELY ADULTS ONLY. This is not Caeser Romero. Heck this isn’t even Heath Ledger. Extreme violence, profane language, discussions of child abuse and neglect, demonstrations of mental illness all make for a showing difficult for most adults to see much less children.

LONG TAKE:

Under tour-de-force in the dictionary you should find a picture of Joaquin Phoenix in costume as Joker/Arthur Fleck from the movie of the same name. His performance in and as Joker should go down in cinematic history as a watershed accomplishment in the creation of an onscreen character.

The story in Joker is of a man’s descent into madness, and for Arthur Fleck, while the trip isn’t very long, it is shown in slow motion.

Todd Phillips, writer/director, takes a stab at what could be described as a documentary about the real story behind Joker, from which all of the cartoons and comic books were based, told in an observational style, as though Jane Goodall had hidden cameras on Arthur Fleck instead of gorillas.

Without giving too much away, Arthur is not born but created, as he suffers mentally, emotionally and physically at the hands of a mental health system which fails him, the people who should have protected him, and a violent uncaring culture which takes advantage of his initial simple view of life.

One of the main characters in Joker is invisible – the soundtrack. The music accompanying Joker is incredible, following Arthur like an unseen ghost, drawing in his madness and breathing it out again for others to hear. Hildur Guonadottir, an Icelandic composer, weaves a web of truly haunting cello music which, at turns, lulls and aggressively pursues the listener, echoing Arthur’s multi-faceted insanity: his depressed, hopeless state of mind, his hallucinatory flights of fancy, as well as his manic episodes of single-minded determination.

The cinematography visualized by Lawrence Sher is masterful.  From the grim hues and motifs of rain and shadow, to the camera work which uses techniques such as the “dolly zoom” aka the “Vertigo Effect” where the camera pulls back and zooms forward at the same time – all work together to allow a bleak and twisted perspective into Arthur’s broken mind.

But, most tragic, all this wealth of creativity and talent is ultimately wasted.

While Joker, as I mentioned, can arguably be considered the origin story from which all the other legends and mythology of the D.C. Joker emerge, especially the cartoons, the comics, and Jack Nicholson’s rendition, the viewing of the movie is a long travail of suffering with very little purpose. In films like Les Misérables, for example, the suffering of Fantine and Jean Val Jean is altruistic and ultimately redemptive, teaching humility and mercy to the characters and vicariously to the audience. In Man of La Mancha, the prostitute, Aldonza, is shown literally and figuratively in the ditch in which she self describes as having been born, in order to illuminate how far Don Quixote’s kindness brings her when she reforms. Even silly fare like disaster movies serve as a mechanism for the characters to show courage and self-sacrifice.

In The Dark Knight, Bruce’s losses mold and inspire him into becoming a self-appointed defender of the weak and innocent. And there are Judeo-Christian motifs in the Dark Knight. Bruce Wayne dies to himself everyday, denying his own comfort and pleasures, instead taking on the sins of others, all the while pitted against the remorseless demonic figure of Heath Ledger’s Joker.

Even farces such as Mad Mad Mad Mad World, which feature the ne’erdowell indulgence of greedy impulses by groups of people succumbing to temptations, serve as lessons in horrible warnings against sinking into the mire of one’s baser instincts. The Mad Mad ensemble put themselves through brutal punishments and ultimately go to jail – all while making us LAUGH.

But there is nothing absolutive in Joker, nor are there any hints of a reckoning to come. And there is no proportionate justice for the wicked, especially not for Arthur, no purpose to anyone’s suffering and no humor. Joker is unrelentingly grim, unendingly dark, and grindingly depressing. In the end, the audience is left only with the familiar figure of a boy standing over the dead bodies of his parents and the dancing of Arthur in his Joker costume amidst the rampaging rioters in a burning Gotham.

Joker does serve as a demonstration in favor of institutionalizing the mentally disturbed as opposed to releasing into the “wild” those incapable of functioning in society.

It also serves as a horrible warning against the efficacy of vigilante justice as Arthur quickly moves from killing in self defense, to murder in order to cover his actions, to vengeance against those he believes have harmed him, to serving as judge, jury and executioner against those he deems as “awful”.

But there is nothing redemptive, or self-sacrificing about Joker’s actions. There is no moral base from which Arthur even attempts to rationalize his behavior. There is nothing to learn from the pain which Arthur endures or inflicts.

Zazie Beetz (Deadpool 2) is his exhausted single-mother neighbor Sophie, Brett Cullen (Dark Knight Rises) plays Thomas Wayne, Douglas Hodge makes a singular impression as Alfred Pennyworth, one of the only characters in the movie whose focus is not on themselves, as his primary concern is to protect Bruce, and Dante Pereira-Olson plays young Bruce.

Robert De Niro has a small role, as talk show host Murray Franklin. DeNiro’s presence is delicious irony. De Niro has played both a character as equally as unhinged as Arthur in Taxi Driver and as demented a fan who faces off against an idealized talk show host in the lesser known King of Comedy. DeNiro’s resume is incredible, featuring a list of movies with enough quality and variety to have secured the careers of a dozen actors: the casual, criminal violence in the characters of The Godfather II, The Irishman, and Cape Fear, the flawed heroes struggling in the dark worlds of Midnight Run, Deer Hunter and Taxi Driver, the boxer in Raging Bull, the captain of a fantasy ship in the light farce Stardust, the aging lead in the romantic comedy The Intern, the slaver turned priest in The Mission, the grim and frightening Al Capone in The Untouchables, the moving victim of catatonia in Awakenings. De Niro is impossible to pin down. Admittedly, it is a testament to the quality to which the filmmakers were aiming in Joker, that the legendary De Niro, himself a master at his craft, would agree to participate.

Unfortunately, the abundance of talent in Joker does not resolve the ultimate meaninglessness of the plot. The audience, much like Arthur, suffers pointlessly in following Arthur’s moral and mental descent.

While Joaquin Phoenix’ performance is mesmerizing and probably should serve in every acting class as a “how to create a character on screen” and while the director and the music serve, with masterful art, to bring us into Arthur’s state of mind and point of view, the journey ultimately has no end, no goal, and no exit strategy from the depths into which Arthur is thrown or the hole he continues to dig at the bottom of his well.

As of the writing of this article Joker is the highest grossing R-rated movie ever made. And it is disturbing to consider that such a pointlessly violent and unrepentantly dark film should attract so much attention.

If you are a student of acting, Joker is worth enduring for Phoenix’ performance. But for those just seeking entertainment or an extension to the D.C. world of Batman and Joker, give this one a miss and re-watch 2008’s The Dark Knight.

FOR A DISASTROUSLY GOOD TIME AT ACTS THEATRE!!! GO SEE – DISASTER: THE MUSICAL!!!

SHORT TAKE

Disaster: the Musical opens (tonight) January 24, 2020 at ACTS Theatre, [GET YOUR TICKETS HERE]  through Groundhog Day (February 2, 2020) with evening performances at 7:30 and matinees at 3. It is a hilarious take off of disaster genre movies, especially The Poseidon Adventure.

WHO SHOULD GO

With slight reservations – anyone. Aside from a few off-color, stress related words, which are difficult to hear amidst loud music, ensemble conversation and special effects noise, the play is appropriate for any age which does not mind loud sounds and music.

LONG TAKE

I love disaster movies. The excitement, the drama, the special effects, the sappy songs. I even love the formula. Meet an unlikely ensemble group, usually: an older married couple, a sick child, a sleazy selfish person who will get their comeuppance, a religious figure, a dog, an entertainer, and at least one estranged couple who will re-bond through trauma. (SEE MY ARTICLE “CATACLYSM AS MARITAL THERAPY” HERE). They will then endure escape room dynamics to survive fire (Towering Inferno), water (Poseidon Adventure), predatory animals (Jurassic Park), rickety climbing structure (various), etc and combinations of the aforementioned, all while evading whatever caused the calamity to begin with: earthquake, fire, tsunami, escaped dinosaurs, hurricane, whatever.

As preposterous as some of these scenarios may sound they have been a guilty pleasure of movie goers for generations. I, for one, once watched The Poseidon Adventure (the first one with Gene Hackman – yes, I’m that old) in the movie theater IN the front row at MIDNIGHT (when the tsunami hit the ship). They are a hoot.

There’s something to be said for the opportunity to reestablish priorities – walking out of a theater knowing that while your dog may have eaten your only copy of your income tax return and the hot water heater is on the fritz, at least you don’t have to ride out the zombie apocalypse in the basement of a burning bar (Shaun of the Dead) or survive an erupting volcano in a collapsed mine shaft (Dante’s Peak). I mean – count your blessings!!

The grand-daddies of disaster, the majordomos of misadventure, and the comptrollers of catastrophe, were: Airport (1970 – with a zillion sequels coming out in the latter part of that decade), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), The Towering Inferno and Earthquake (1974), The Hindenburg (1975), and Meteor (1979).

And following in those esteemed footsteps is DISASTER: THE MUSICAL. Mostly capitalizing on The Poseidon Adventure, this hilarious parody leans heavily on 1970’s songs, costumes and the “disco culture” (such as it was) pervasively popular at the time. Written by Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnick for Only Make Believe’s fund raiser in 2011, the show was a hit and crept up from Off-Off Broadway to Broadway within a few years.

(And FYI Only Make Believe is a non-profit organization that creates and performs interactive theatre for children in hospitals, care facilities, and special education programs, operating under the core resolve that encouraging a child’s imagination is a vital part of the healing and learning process.)

Our local performers at ACTS Theatre throw themselves into the Disaster characters with deliciously shameless enthusiasm. As directed by veteran Kris Webster, no stops are unpulled and no scenery left unchewed.

ABBA style, the music is cobbled together from popular songs of the era. Top 40 tunes like: “Knock on Wood”, “Hot Stuff”, “A Fifth of Beethoven” and “Three Times a Lady”, are used in cleverly comic ways NEVER originally intended. I don’t want to spoil anything for you so won’t tell you all the songs, BUT when you go see Disaster, play a game – see what familiar 1970’s hit song might be coming up next, depending on the circumstances at hand.

The cast is terrific and, despite the weird circumstances in which the songs appear, belt out these archaic tunes with an irresistible gusto that makes singing along difficult to resist. Much like the source material for this comic catastrophe, the cast list is studded with an abundance of familiar talented faces.

Zac Hammons (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels SEE REVIEW HERE) is first on, setting the stage figuratively with a prelude, then appearing often to literally set and reset the stage, athletically bullying into shape the plethora of scenarios needed for the play.

Jordan Gribble (The Giver and the scene stealing father from Bye Bye Birdie SEE REVIEW HERE), is lovelorn Chad.

Mark Hebert (Arsenic and Old Lace SEE REVIEW HERE and Mamma Mia SEE REVIEW HERE) is Scott, Chad’s clueless friend.

Kane Todd (Mamma Mia, Bye Bye Birdie) is Professor Ted Scheider, the disaster expert.

Taylor Novak-Tyler (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Clue SEE REVIEW HERE) is Marianne, Chad’s old girlfriend.

Robert Goodson (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Clue) is Tony Delvechio, the slimy casino owner everyone loves to hate.

Kelly Rowland (Arsenic and Old Lace, I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change SEE REVIEW HERE) is Jackie, the entertainer and single mother with twins.

Ana-Claire Perkins hilariously bounces back and forth as both of Jackie’s twins, Ben and Lisa.

Markie Hebert (I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, Spamalot SEE REVIEW HERE) is Sister Mary Downy, a well meaning nun who has her own reasons for not wanting to go into the casino.

Kathy Heath (Steel Magnolias SEE REVIEW HERE, Arsenic and Old Lace) is Shirley Summers and Matt Dye (Arsenic and Old Lace, Taming of the Shrew SEE REVIEW HERE) is Maury Summers, the older retired happily married couple on their first real vacation.

At which point I have to note an in joke as SHELLEY Winters played a very reminiscent character in The Poseidon Adventure to SHIRLEY Summers here. Geddit? Shelley Winters/Shirley Summers….Hey I didn’t make it up, I’m just bringing it to your attention.

Sonia Yetming is Levora Verona, a washed up disco singer trying to get back on top.

Trevor Chaumont is Jake.

Jessica Broussard is Tracy.

Rhett Goodner is listed as a stock “Wealthy Man”.

Krista Austin plays Rhett Goodner’s character’s wife.

Jaylin Williams is the Chef.

Bobby Guillory, Nikki Guillory and Noelie Puckett lend their support as various cast members and in the ensemble.

And special commendation to all the stage crew, without whose hard work this crazy carnival of calamity would not have been possible.

So for a comedic catastrophe of clever carnage, for a gargantuan gag fest of gore, and a deliciously droll delivery of devastation (OK, I’m done)…go see — DISASTER: THE MUSICAL at ACTS Theatre, [GET YOUR TICKETS HERE]. Then go pet the dog, call a plumber ….. and smile.

FOR MORE DISASTER PHOTOS GO:

HERE

HERE

and

HERE

KLAUS OUTSHINES THE OTHER OSCAR CONTENDERS

SHORT TAKE:

The animated feature Klaus cleverly and adorably postulates the origins of the Santa Claus story.

WHO SHOULD WATCH:

Any age, though there are Looney Tunes level scenes of “violence” and some images no scarier then the chef scene in The Little Mermaid, they are all played for laughs even the littlest can enjoy.

LONG TAKE:

I do not believe in coincidence. And I do not believe the writer-director of Klaus, Sergio Pablos (who also lends his voice to two of the more caricature cast members, Pumpkin and Olaf) does either. I think that everything happens for a reason, as directed by the Divine hand of our Creator. The story Mr. Pablos has lovingly crafted during the last two and a half years, addresses one possible explanation of the origins of the Santa Claus story, and demonstrates this purpose-driven theory beautifully.

Klaus is one of five contenders for the best animated feature film Oscar. The others are: Toy Story 4 (SEE REVIEW HERE), Missing Link, I Lost my Body, and How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World. I think Klaus should be the hands-down winner.

SPOILERS (THOUGH AS FEW AS I COULD)

The premise, without giving away too much, is about a spoiled little rich man who is forced to cope on the island of Smeerensburg, in the outer reaches of the north, among members of two feuding families who have made their community a generational war zone. The name “Smeerensburg” was chosen by Pablos, adopted from a city on the outskirts of the northern frontier with the name of Smeerenburg (without the middle “s”) which no longer exists, so is, in a way, itself now a myth.

While the violence is played for laughs, the oppressive gray scale, deliberately sharp intimidating ubiquitous icicle motiffs, angular houses and angry denizens make the point. This is not a place you want to stay.

But, unlike I Lost my Body, (which is about a severed hand trying and ultimately failing to reunite with the young man from whom it was cut), Klaus is not unrelentingly grim, dark and navel-mediatingly introspective. Klaus is funny, as animated films really SHOULD be. While there is a modicum of slapstick, the humor is mostly from the way people can be amusing just in interacting with each other. The writing in Klaus is warm, smart and clever, creating distinctive personalities amongst the cartoon creations. Klaus gives us likeable, interesting people, unlike one of the other Oscar contenders, the (ahem) abominable Missing Link, which latter movie, unsuccessfully relied upon star power and improv to write their failed script. Klaus is often amusingly unrealistic, especially as Jesper confronts obstacles and, of course, survives things that flesh and blood human beings would not. But much like the OLD Bugs Bunny shows, it establishes and follows its own Universal rules while tweaking real world ones. Missing Link, on the other hand, is all over the place, placing characters in “jeopardy” one moment then having them come away unscathed from other worse events.

Klaus, like any good fairy tale, has an ennobling theme repeated several times: “A true act of goodwill always sparks another.” As the movie plays out, the meaning of this phrase expresses itself more deeply – how great good can come from the most unlikely situations, even in the serendipitous meeting between one man suffering from deep grief and another so myopically selfish he can not see the good he is accomplishing, albeit for the wrong reasons.

The animation while not 100% state-of-the-art, is solid and updated 2D, often clever and delightfully detailed, reminiscent of the artful Anastasia. In contrast, How to Train Your Dragon has some truly gorgeous visuals and the main characters are as endearing as they were in the first two, BUT the plot to Dragon is thin and really just a slightly mixed rehash of ground already covered. Also, Dragon‘s story is far too padded with superfluous characters inserted for laughs but who just come across as obnoxious. What Klaus lacks in cutting edge visuals, it more than makes up for in well developed characters and a subtly intricate plot.

Jason Schwartzman’s Jesper reminds me a lot of David Spade’s cocky, cynically hip Kuzco from The Emperor’s New Groove. Like Kuzco, Jesper languishes in prolonged adolescence as an unchallenged, indulged youth but who comes into his own and becomes a mensch in discovering previously untapped and unsuspected wells of determination, ingenuity and altruism.

The soundtrack is light and lovely, and, although not a musical, is sprinkled throughout with catchy background tunes intended to reflect the mood of the moment.

Klaus, the character, is voiced by JK Simmons, who stole scenes as the loud blustery editor in the old Tobey Maguire Spider-Man movies.

The wonderful Joan Cusack (sister to and often co-star with John C.,  brings ever-angry Mrs. Krum, (reminding me a bit of a female Yosemite Sam) to life. She is an actress who has graced many lovely movies like: Instant Family (SEE MY REVIEW HERE), Raising Helen, the first Toy Stories, and Martian Child. I do not believe I have ever seen a movie with her in it that I did not at least enjoy her performance.

Will Sasso (guest star on The Orville (SEE MY REVIEWS HERE AND HERE)) is the cluelessly combative Mr. Ellingboe. Rashida Jones (Tag SEE REVIEW HERE and Cumberbatch’s Grinch SEE REVIEW HERE) plays Alva, the poster child for demoralized teachers, a young woman who idealistically arrived in Smeerensburg 5 years before and has been selling fish to earn enough money for passage out ever since.

Unlike the devastating betrayal of Toy Story 4 (SEE MY REVIEW HERE), which squandered a deep well of talent, creativity and fandom to put an ignominious end to the entire Toy Story franchise, Klaus gives us a story of altruism and family with a theme repeated often: “A true act of good will always sparks another.” This is a much better theme than Toy Story 4‘s pathetic rationalization for men who abandon their families and responsibilities for the shallow pursuit of their own selfish desires, in order to “follow their heart”. (gag me with a SPOON!)

Klaus, in contrast, harkens back to It’s a Wonderful Life, where one man, DYING to himself (instead of indulging himself) every day can impact so many lives, even if they do not anticipate or understand what they are doing while it is happening.

So while other films may have more money, tech, star power, or a franchise to back them up, Klaus more than outshines them all in superlative storytelling, characterization, theme, heart and … true acts of good will. Regardless of whether Oscar recognizes this or not, Klaus is the true winner.

 

JUDY – A HORRIBLE WARNING BEHIND THE CURTAIN

SHORT TAKE:
Harsh look at the woman behind the magic of Judy Garland, aka Frances Ethel Gumm, in her waning professional months, near the end of her life.

WHO SHOULD WATCH:

Adult fare ONLY. Vulgar and blasphemous language, sexuality, implied pedophilia, scenes of alcohol and drug abuse.

LONG TAKE:

One of the things I’ve learned in writing movie reviews is that, once seriously analyzed, you never look at these celluloid miracles quite the same way. Not necessarily a bad thing, just different.

Like when Dorothy gets a peek behind the Wizard’s curtains. She discovers truths about him that perhaps she didn’t want to know but at the same time makes him more accessible.

This can be especially true about biographies, and Judy, a screenplay by Tom Edge, in turn based on the play The End of the Rainbow by Peter Quilter, is a prime example of learning more about the creation of a fantasy than is good for that imaginary world’s longevity.

I knew Judy Garland primarily for her unforgettable performance as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Judy gives a look into the industry that stole her childhood, made her feel betrayed by the adults who should have been protecting her, addicted her to pick me ups and barbiturates, and ultimately contributed to her death at a prematurely aged 47.

Renee Zellweger, (Miss Potter, Bridget Jones, Chicago) up for best actress for her astonishing performance in Judy, is mesmerizing. Zellweger has captured the look and essence of Judy Garland. Not just the easy to imitate woman at the height of her career, but someone who was at the top of her game and now at the bottom of her own self-dug well, who, history dictates, will die in but months from a lifetime of physical abuse and addiction. Yet she is also a woman who has moments of great dignity and kindness in comforting a disconsolate fan, and sparkles brilliantly showcasing her incredible talent. Zellweger shines forth as brightly in Garland’s singing as she demonstrates the desperate darkness of Garland’s personal lows in the last months of her life.

Judy Garland blasted into America’s consciousness with her role as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz and never really left.

Zellweger looks, sounds and acts more like Judy Garland than Judy Garland. She demonstrates an incredible repertoire, performing Garland’s iconic songs: The Trolley Song, Over the Rainbow, You Made me Love You, Talk of the Town, By Myself, Get Happy, San Francisco, Zing Went the Strings, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, and Come Rain or Come Shine. These are worth seeing all by themselves.

But as good as Renee Z’s performance is, the same cannot be said for the other performers or the rest of the movie as directed by Rupert Goold, (mostly known for BBC mini-series filmings of Shakespeare). I could not shake the feeling, even while knowing better, that this was a made-for-TV weekly weeper. The close-ups, the episodic nature of the scenes, and the mediocre, caricature acting of the other performers made for a lukewarm film at best.

Renee Z appeared like a diamond sewn onto the waistcoat of a poorly fitting polyester suit from Walmart. The supporting structure is not terrible, and certainly serves its purpose but is nothing special.

The background soundtrack by Gabriel Yared is bland fare, applying fluffy disconnected tunes to scenes, seemingly chosen from a standard library of emotion emoting jingles.

The cinematography, as I have indicated, harkens back to boob tube “Scandal-of-the-Week” bio fodder which used to be sprinkled into the weekly TV Guide.

Judy’s greatest virtue, aside from Renee Z’s astonishing performance, is the horrible warning to parents who might have stars in their eyes. Releasing children into any industry without close parental supervision and protection is a disaster waiting to happen.

Miss Garland’s father cheated on Garland’s mother with men. Judy’s mother, according to the screenplay, as well as the prima facia evidence of Garland’s precipitous decline, sold her to the Hollywood System. Neither parent raised or responsibly watched over her. The child Garland (Darci Shaw) was tyrannically forced into eating and behavioral schedules torturous, inappropriate, and abusive to her slight frame. She was given pills to help her sleep and pills to wake her up so as to accommodate the brutal filming schedules. There were allegations of sexual advances from older men including Louis B. Mayer (portrayed by Richard Cordery from About Time and Les Misérables). In turn, Judy grew up pill addicted, fragile, cynical, and desperate for the attention of men. She crashed four marriages and died three months after marrying her fifth husband, Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock – La La Land, Unbroken, Noah).

Garland struggled desperately to be a better mother for her three children, Liza from her marriage to Vincent Minelli, and Lorna, and Joey, with Sid Luft (played by Rufus Sewell – Hamlet, The Illusionist) but they have suffered from the sins of their parents as well.

Ms. Garland died at the age of 47 looking like she was the wrong side of 70.

Liza Minnelli, Miss Garland’s oldest child, expressly disapproved of the script and I can understand why. Not only does it dig up dirt on poor Miss Garland like dirty underwear on a laundry line, but it serves no end but to satisfy curious titillation. Further, it tarnishes the idealized image of the little girl who went to Oz with which we all grew up.

In Bohemian Rhapsody Freddie Mercury admitted to his failings and, despite his sufferings, carried on, tried to make amends with those he had hurt and soldiered on writing music with his band until days before his death. Ms. Garland, as shown in Judy, continued binge drinking, even showing up drunk to sold-out performances, resulting in her being booed off stage more than once. She fought for her own preferences over what was obviously in the best interests of her children. She was often unappreciative of the help others tried to provide her, and was eventually fired by people who loved and respected her talent when even they couldn’t tolerate her unprofessional behavior any longer. As a result she died penniless.

There is something to said for being a horrible warning. If keeping innocents out of the Hollywood System is the theme, it certainly serves that purpose and is worth viewing for that. But, having grown up with one image of Dorothy, there is a part of me who, having now peeked behind the Wizard’s curtain, kind of wished I hadn’t.

R.I.P. Judy.

LITTLE WOMEN – GERWIG-STYLE 2019 – BEAUTIFULLY TOLD, DEEPLY FLAWED, NOT FOR CHILDREN

SHORT TAKE:

Well told but fatally flawed as its ultimate intent is to brutally undercut the original theme of the classic story with a harsh feminist agenda.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Adults ONLY for its twisted theme revealed at the end of the movie.

LONG TAKE:

This 2019 version of Little Women, by extremely talented director/adaptor Greta Gerwig (Ladybird SEE REVIEW HERE), is the latest of 3 in three years based upon the titular novel. These three latest are only a few of many versions available on celluloid. There are LOTS more, including the 1994 version with none other than Batman’s Christian Bale in the role of Laurie and Stranger Things rehabbed Winona Ryder as Jo – but that would be a review for another time.

SPOILERS – EVEN FOR THOSE FAMILIAR WITH THE STORY

Little Women is based upon the classic children’s novel of the same name, about the Marches, a family of four girls and their mother living in Massachusetts on very moderate funds during the Civil War waiting for the family patriarch chaplain to return from the front lines. Included in the cast are the March’s very wealthy maiden Aunt March, their rich neighbor Mr. Laurence and their pitifully poor neighbors, the Hummels.

This 2019 Little Women tells the tale in period costume. However, the 2018 version told in modern day is far far closer to the book’s original theme and intent. The author of the source material, Louisa Mae Alcott had a very unpleasant childhood of poverty under the hands of a tyrannical and irresponsible penniless spendthrift father. Louisa became the breadwinner of the family in part due to her writing of this classic story, idealistically shaped from her wretched family life. Alcott’s autobiography would have been fascinating. Another retelling of Alcott’s story would have been lovely.

Unfortunately, Ms. Gerwig strove to have her reality and fake it too. We, members of the audience, are lead to believe the woman we see in the beginning of the movie is Jo. In fact, we find out at the end, she is Alcott, who holds in contempt the values of marriage which she is “forced” to insert into her book to get it published. This attitude is not only offensive but a sucker punch to everyone who went to see Little Women or, worse, unwittingly brought an innocent girl to view what should have been a delightful retelling of this classic.

That being said, and before I get to the ugly parts of the movie, the acting was splendid. Everyone did an excellent job. Notable were: Chris Cooper (recently in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood SEE REVIEW HERE) is terrific as Mr. Laurence. Timothee Chalamet (victimized in the pedophile advocating Call me by Your Name SEE REVIEW HERE) is heartbreaking as Laurie.

And Meryl Streep’s Aunt March stole every scene she was in. Streep was the perfect subtle combination of blunt and cynically gruff personality, offering criticism freely and offering no holds barred advice but hiding a genuine affection for her poor relatives about whom she is impatient and condemnatory of what she sees as their poor life choices, but about and for whom she cares deeply.

The cinematography by Yorick Le Saux is gorgeous – evoking the soft feel of two hundred years ago yet inserting bright colors to prevent any feel of drabness.

Alexandre Desplat is no stranger to writing soundtracks for off-the-wall movies, writing for bizarrely fascinating Isle of Dogs (SEE REVIEW HERE), the offensive Shape of Water (SEE REVIEW HERE), the eccentric Valerian and The City of a Thousand Planets (SEE REVIEW HERE). And he doesn’t disappoint here, constantly evoking the feel of young women running or dancing, using a variety of instruments to color the moment.

But all of these positives could not offset the serious negatives of this movie.

Instead of being honest about an eventual “reveal” that the woman we have been watching is not Jo, the character, but Alcott the author, Gerwig has Alcott masquerade as Jo. But in the end Gerwig has “Jo” remain a spinster, complain that she is forced to “sell” her heroine into marriage to sell her book, and insert a “fantasy” scene which portrays an idealized ending to her book in what can only be described as a backhanded, sarcastic middle finger to the audience, as though demonstrating how far Alcott had to condescend to the masses to get her genius in print – that a happy ending with marriage and family is merely a trite and commonplace mechanism with which to make money, not a noble example of what millenia of people have found to be a blessing.

Ms. Gerwig was true to neither the classic nor to what could have been an autobiographical historic drama. Given that so many versions of Little Women have come out recently it would have made sense to go complete bio and tell the story, not of Jo again, but of Louisa Mae Alcott and her sisters. Alcott’s sisters closely mirrored her literary characters. Elizabeth (Beth) did indeed die young. Youngest sister May (anagrammed into Amy) married, not the boy next door, but a businessman violinist. Anna (Meg) married one John, not Brooke, but Pratt who, like Mr. Brooke died unexpectedly young and not that well off.,

Ms. Gerwig placed one foot firmly in the familiar tale and the other in reality just enough to makes smarmy digs at the notion that women “had” to marry to be able to support themselves. Given Alcott’s success, this was obviously not entirely true, and only succeeded in making the March girls hypocritical and tipping Ms. Gerwig’s condescending hand towards the institution of marriage. Shoehorning political correctness into this otherwise lovely tale is unbecoming of this otherwise talented director.

Had she wanted to tell an honest tale of Ms. Alcott’s life story I think that would have been a far more worthy effort than to create a mish mash blend of reality and fiction that satisfied and did no true justice to either tale or genre.

There is much to commend this latest vision. But easy accessibility is not one of its virtues. This is Little Women: intermediate studies level. If you are not completely familiar with the story, you could easily get lost. The movie starts near the end of the story as “Jo” (who later turns out to really be Alcott but going by Jo) is in New York trying to get her stories published. Beth is already dying. Mr. Bhaer’s interest and honest friendship are going mostly unnoticed and unappreciated. The story then jumps back and forth, not only from there to Jo’s early life with her family in flashbacks, but back and forth between the script as written based upon the classic novel and “reality” as Jo changes her story while negotiating with her would be publisher, “shoehorning” in a love story for herself to make the book more marketable, which life event did not really happen. Alcott actually died a spinster.

Even if you ARE familiar with the story it will be very confusing. The characters are not identified right away so who they are gets muddled and is not aided by the frequent flashbacks. It is an interesting though ultimately very flawed perspective. Our family studied it while homeschooling, saw multiple versions over the years and even appeared as a family at a local community theatre production of the stage play. So I know the story well but still had to pay attention to be sure I got the characters right.

There are incongruities which are relatively trivial but VERY distracting. For example, the actresses’ ages chronologically match up to their respective March characters, but they don’t LOOK the right ages. The girl who plays Amy, Florence Pugh, LOOKS and acts the oldest but plays the youngest March. Emma Watson’s Meg (the oldest March girl) looks and acts as young as Amy should be. The actor playing Mr. Bhaer, Louis Garel, is 9 years older that Saiorse Ronan (Jo), but looks Ronan’s (Jo’s) age. He SHOULD look and act about 15 years older than Jo.

Attributed to everyone from Samuel Goldwyn to Humphrey Bogart, referring to people who want to propagandize movies, is the statement: “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” Whoever said it first, Ms. Gerwig did not get the memo and has decided to create a hit piece on men and marriage in general and the themes of Little Women in particular.

Ms. Gerwig made the men as weak as possible. When Odenkirk’s pathetic Mr. March finally makes his appearance, far from the joyous relief of having their strong male protector back, as he should have been, I had the overwhelming impression that he was just going to be another weak dependent mouth for Marmee to somehow have to find a way to feed. In Bart Johnson’s Mr. March from 2018’s Little Women we see the backbone from which all these Little Women get their strength.

While it is understandable that Alcott would have experienced the Odenkirk version, she WROTE the Johnson version into her book – the man she likely would have wanted to be her father. But Gerwig, again, wants to merge the two to destroy the beautiful story Alcott wrote and simultaneously muddles her opportunity to tell a more true to life biography by awkwardly merging Alcott’s ugly truth with Alcott’s beautiful written literary vision.

Gerwig also made the sisters appear very cold and Machiavelian at times. As the three surviving sisters walk through the recently deceased Aunt March’s spacious home, which she has generously bequeathed to Jo, all Jo says is that she thought Aunt March didn’t like her, to which Amy comments she can dislike Jo and still give her the house.

The sisters never mention how, despite their Aunt’s cold exterior, Aunt March was incredibly philanthropic toward them, took Amy on a trip which secured her marriage to Laurie, invented work for the girls with which Aunt March could give the family money and retain their dignity, paid for Meg’s wedding despite her own misgivings about the wisdom of the marriage, and for all the many other generosities she surely provided her poor brother’s family. None of the things Aunt March did for them were mentioned, only a cool assessment of what she could still do for them now that she was dead.

Even worse, the faith in God upon which the Marches relied in the book was given little and nebulous short shrift lip service in this version.

Miss Gerwig is more intent on propaganda than telling a good story. Along with her obvious distaste for, dismissal of and contempt for men, she doesn’t seem to like America much either.

Mrs. March (Laura Dern) volunteers at the Civil War equivalent of the USO. This was only shown once and then only to provide a vehicle for a propagandistic hit piece as Mrs. March expresses how ashamed she is of her country, despite the fact it is literally bleeding to near death to make amends for its sins. This horrifying comment was not in the book. The only time anyone mentioned being ashamed in the book was of themselves for a fault or NOT being ashamed of hard work.

At one point Amy tells Jo that Jo’s writing about something makes it important, explicitly saying that things do not have inherent importance in and of themselves. This is the acme of hubris on Ms. Gerwig’s part. Apparently Miss Gerwig believes things are not relevant or of any significance unless they come out of the mouth of people like her – the professional writers who believe they can shape the world, not by proof or truth or real life experience, not by faith in God or inherent credibility, or common sense. Gerwig believes that truth comes only from the pen of those, like her, who have a self-assessment of their own importance. This is the essence of Fake News.

Ms. Gerwig has also decided on a PC perception of Jo as androgynous. Some on the left have even, fairly, interpreted many of the lines and attitudes Ms. Gerwig injected into Jo’s character as lesbian. Had Miss Gerwig wanted to examine that possibility concerning the author’s lifestyle in a legitimate adult oriented biography, I would have found that appropriate, interesting, and potentially insightful. But to distort Jo, the Jo from the source material this way, in this skewed version of Little Women is propaganda of the most base nature, inappropriately forcing an alternate sexual topic onto a children’s classic character.

So in conclusion, instead of either a faithful adaptation of the classic novel or an honest and what would have been truly fascinating examination of the real Miss Alcott’s life, Miss Gerwig has decided to work a classic children’s tale into a propaganda project of extreme feminism, anti-Americanism, and manifesto for alternate sexual lifestyles.

And for Miss Gerwig to present the story as an inextricable combination of the fact with the fiction with no disclaimer or delineation between the two, demonstrates that she wanted to have her credibility and fake it too.

Watch the far more delightful, faithful and faith FILLED 2018 version of Little Women instead.