August 9, 2007

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Becoming Jane (PG)
Anne Hathaway imagineers a Jane Austen who is more bodice-ripper heroine than bookish spinster in Becoming Jane, a movie certain to aggravate lit majors and make them wish they’d studied accounting or maybe physics.

Because I’m pretty sure they’ll never make a sappy, overly long romance about whoever invented double-entry bookkeeping.

Jane Austen (Hathaway) is a prickly, literarily-inclined young English woman who is unmarried despite being impossibly beautiful. She’s able to entertain the locals with her humorous, er, reading things (monologues? one-woman plays? Not sure but the scene where she livens up a party with her reading really makes you grateful for the iPod and the big-screen TV). During one such reading at one particular party, Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy), a young man visiting the shire from London, follows my personal impulse on hearing Jane’s performance and falls asleep. He awakes during the applause and, when Jane overhears him later, gives a very early-Pride & Prejudice-Mr. Darcy assessment of the juvenile and trifling nature of her work. Jane goes upstairs and throws away her little creative writing class assignment and sulks about how the cute boy dissed her.

Undeterred by this bad review, though, Jane more or less tells her mother that she plans to “live by my pen,” fancy 18th-century talk for “I’m not getting married even though we’re hanging on to our middle-class status by a thread.” Jane’s mother (Julie Walters) is understandably unimpressed with the idea, telling Jane, after Miss IWannaBeAWriter-pants turns down a wealthy boy’s marriage proposal, that money is absolutely necessary. Even Jane’s soft-spoken dad, Rev. Austen (James Cromwell), tells his daughter that nothing kills the spirit like poverty.

Yeah, but I want my husband to be dreamy, Jane says. And thus we get the flirtation with Tom Lefroy. Though he is a poor Irish lawyer, he has a rich uncle and a shot at a comfortable life. As everything from Austen’s own novels to Bridget Jones’ Diary tells us, their initial verbal sparring eventually turns into heavy puppy-dog eyes and we find our cash-strapped couple trying to figure out how to get the money required to get them their happily ever after.

So, SPOILER ALERT. Jane Austen, the actual historical person who wrote the four good novels and two OK ones that you probably read at some point in your English literature education, she never got married. Died a spinster in her early 40s. How’s that for happily ever after? If you’re going to see this movie, you probably know that. You probably also know that most of this story is essentially fan-fiction guessed into existence by researchers who have based it on a couple of letters and a back-engineering of Austen’s novels, mostly Pride & Prejudice.

This Jane-Austen-mash-up quality is Becoming Jane’s second-biggest problem (after its “truthiness” approach to her biography). The movie gives us the sisterly relationship of Jane and her sister Cassandra (Anna Maxwell Martin) that mirrors that of the oldest girls in Pride & Prejudice (which is probably truest to life of all the movie’s relationships), it gives us a Jane-Lefroy romance nearly identical to that novel’s Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy romance (minus the happy ending). We also get a controlling old woman of vague nobility (a familiar Austen character), notes of the loneliness of Persuasion and the embarrassingly forward young flirt who is also an Austen regular. These are the elements of Austen but they don’t have her wit and her skillful story creation (though the movie does repurpose some of her dialogue). This Jane Austen style without the Jane Austen substance leaves the movie feeling like just a bundle of romantic comedy clichés, which, when paired with the film’s Important Social Commentary tone, plays as unbearably silly and insufferably heavy-handed.

Hathaway’s performance doesn’t help matters. A romantically awkward writer who is too much in her own head would have been an interesting character but Hathaway turns this personality into the same irritating know-it-all yet immature schlub she played in The Devil Wears Prada, with the results being just as unlikeable here as they were there. While I’m not particularly in favor of such ridiculousness as Nicole Kidman’s nose in The Hours, the constant reference to “Jane’s prospects” seem silly and incongruous when paired with Hathaway’s very Hollywood good looks. Amanda Root, the actress who played the tired, old-maid-ish Anne Elliot in the 1995 Persuasion, would have been better suited to the role. A younger version of Root, an actress who could be pretty but wasn’t showily so, would have made more sense with the story and have given this biography some of the seriousness it lacked. C

Rated PG for brief nudity and mild language (and, probably, insufferable politeness). Directed by Julian Jarrold and written by Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams, Becoming Jane is an hour and 52 minutes long and is distributed by Miramax Films. It is currently open in limited release and is slated to open in wide release on Friday, Aug. 10