Directed by: Noah Baumbach , Greta Gerwig  || Produced by: David Heyman, Noah Baumbach , Amy Pascal, Denise Di Novi, Robin Swicord 
Screenplay: by Noah Baumbach , Greta Gerwig  || Starring: Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Laura Dern1-2, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, Julie Hagerty, Merritt Wever , Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Timothee Chalamet, Meryl Streep, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, Louis Garrel, Chris Cooper 
Music by: Randy Newman , Alexandre Desplat  || Cinematography: Robbie Ryan , Yorick Le Saux  || Edited by: Jennifer Lame , Nick Houy  || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 136 minutes1, 135 minutes2 || 1 = Marriage Story, 2 = Little Women
I’ve long maintained that “dramatic” motion-pictures, also known as film dramas, are the least cinematic of narrative genre formulas. Most of what the public recognizes as dramatic storytelling — narratives centered around social maneuvering, gossip, or variations on people sitting and talking to one another without so much the threat of violence — isn’t well predisposed to the visual language of film. One has to be creative in their editing, camerawork, and mise-en-scène to transform everyday social encounters into something worth watching on-screen for 2+ hours.
Possible exceptions to dramatic cinema’s forgettable theatrics include romantic dramas, which take advantage of our biological inclination to court romantic partners to produce social spectacle often more translatable to screen. Two recent notable examples of the cinematic romance are Oscar-favorites Marriage Story, written and directed by Noah Baumbach, and Little Women, written and directed by Greta Gerwig. The former was described by Mike Stoklasa of Red Letter Media as “Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver smearing the screen with their acting chops,” while the latter is the third directorial effort by rising star Gerwig and also the 12,723rd screen or theatre adaptation of the famous novel of the same name by author Louisa May Alcott. Both films are unsurprising critical darlings at this year’s awards-circuit, featuring crowd-friendly familial drama for general audiences as well as a plethora of social commentary for professional critics to scrutinize. Each film has unique strengths and drawbacks that are all, in some way, characteristic of the cinematic love story, though both I will argue may be forgotten once 2019’s Oscar season concludes.
Gerwig’s Little Women is similar to her sophomore directorial feature, Lady Bird (2017), in that they’re both female coming-of-age stories about love, independence, and loss of childhood innocence. For all my criticisms of Lady Bird, it was a straightforward, efficient narrative featuring a protagonist (an impressive Saoirse Ronan) with a clear goal (earning admission at a prestigious university on the US east coast). The greatest problems of Little Women concern its lack of straightforward narrative progression and its haphazard cross-cutting. This adaptation’s nonlinear storytelling feels abrupt and nonsensical, an obvious and ill advised stylistic choice that muddles its source material’s otherwise timeless, simple premise of four sisters (Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen) growing up together during tumultuous geopolitical events (the US Civil War). Little Women’s first two acts in particular feel like they’ve been pulverized in a blender a la Suicide Squad (2016) or Man of Steel (2013), jumping across multiple stages of space and time with little rhyme or reason.
Compounding these problems is the lack of noticeable aging across the entire cast. Younger actors are not used to portray younger versions of characters in earlier parts of the story, which is faithful to the novel (the original story spans less than ten years, and the four principle sisters begin that story in their mid to late teens), yet when combined with the film’s whiplash editing, characters’ visual resistance to the passage of time obscures the chronological placement and physical geography of its characters.
Less troublesome aspects of Gerwig’s Little Women involve its mise-en-scène, and cinematography, particularly in its final act. The film recovers somewhat as its editing settles down and the story builds momentum before its principle tragic climax, while the clever, self-referential epilogue cross-cuts more deliberately to achieve its metacontextual effect. With regards to non-cinematographic visuals, Little Women’s production-design and costumes are immaculate, fit the for the best of Broadway, though director of photography Yorick Le Saux’s camerawork does little to remind the audience this version of Alcott’s tale is a movie rather than a stage play. A couple neat shots like Chris Cooper eavesdropping on Scanlen playing piano emphasize the quadrant system well, while another visual of Pugh rejecting a marriage proposal recalls 19th century impressionist painting; besides these few exceptions, however, Gerwig’s cinematographic direction is lackluster and boring, either falling victim to the movie’s choppy editing or portraying the main characters as mere figures in a two-dimensional theatre; a couple monologues by Pugh and Ronan regarding women’s general social restrictions stand out from the otherwise muted camerawork and subdued performances, but not enough to overcome them.
Baumbach’s Marriage Story approaches romance and gender politics from a different, more contemporary angle, focusing on dynamic, sustained long-takes that involve complicated blocking and subtle tracking movements. The film revolves around the interstate divorce of Johansson and Driver, whom inevitably resort to expensive legal counsel to dissolve their 10-year marriage and decide custody for their son. An otherwise quaint yet relatable premise, Marriage Story is cognizant enough to recognize its cliched narrative redux of rich white people drama; for example, a wonderful courtroom sequence juxtaposes our main characters’ marital situation with a hilarious cutaway to less privileged, working-class couples waiting their turn to argue family law before the same judge. Baumbach showcases his sense of humor in other instances with extended monologues by Johanssson and Driver, several of which devolve into shouting matches and one that results in Driver slitting his wrist by accident.
Marriage Story’s lone significant flaws, besides the aforementioned pedestrian subject-matter and its predictable, bland conclusion, are its length and pacing. Baumbach’s film is good-looking throughout thanks in large part to director of photography, Robbie Ryan, yet is at least 20-30 minutes too long and features much repetition across its 136 minute running time. I’m confident that if Baumbach was committed to “killing his darling,” he could’ve wrapped this story in as little as 90 minutes.
In a way, Marriage Story and Little Women are inverses of each other and opposite takes on the traditional romantic drama. Greta Gerwig’s re-adaptation of a timeless classic ties itself in knots trying to “modernize” its source material in both narrative structure and thematic overtones, with only the latter being somewhat effective. Marriage Story, on the other hand, keeps its narrative simple and emphasizes the bravado performances of a much smaller cast with memorable, yet not flashy camerawork. Noah Baumbach’s story of marital dissolution suffers from overindulgent screenwriting, however, repeating multiple sequences for little reason other than to engorge an otherwise straightforward, linear narrative. Conversely, Little Women’s latest rendition could’ve used nothing but linear storytelling and narrative repetition so I could understand what the fuck was happening.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Both Marriage Story and Little Women feel relatable due to simple premises and relatable characters, but each film approaches their classical romantic material from opposite directorial perspectives. The cinematography and lead performances of the former are powerful, yet partially diluted by an exorbitant run-time, while the familial drama and impressive production values of the latter are sliced and diced with merciless, borderline incoherent editing.
—> I’m ON THE FENCE with regard’s to Baubach’s analysis of modern divorce proceedings, which is a mixed bag, while I CANNOT RECOMMEND Gerwig’s bass-ackwards retelling of Little Women.
? Hey, wait a minute — Gerwig and Baumbach are married? It all makes sense, now!