September 27, 2007

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The Jane Austen Book Club (PG-13)
A group of women decide that Jane Austen is just what they need to perk up their lives (and possibly give them a little insight into their romantic problems) in The Jane Austen Book Club, a relatively sane if predictable Austen-esque romantic comedy.

Despite the goofy romantic she’s portrayed as in parts of Becoming Jane, Jane Austen’s books are full of some rather ominous subtext about love and marriage, namely that the two don’t always or even generally go together. It’s more “love and disgrace” and “camaraderie and marriage.” Even the really hot romances (“hot” by 18th-century English standards) usually involve both parties deciding that they’d been rather bull-headed and high-handed.

Thusly, The Jane Austen Book Club is no fairy tale either. While not a harsh picture of modern marriage, it’s not all pumpkin coaches, glass slippers and handsome princes either.

Jocelyn (Maria Bello) has just lost the man in her life — a fact that doesn’t elicit as much sympathy as one would at first suspect because that “man” was her best male breeding dog. A fine matchmaker of dogs, she’s been lousy at love herself. So her friend Bernadette (Kathy Baker) decides to organize a book club to cheer her up. She asks other women to join: Sylvia (Amy Brenneman), a friend of Jocelyn’s who finds herself suddenly single when her husband Daniel (Jimmy Smits) leaves her for another woman; Allegra (Maggie Grace), Sylvia’s headstrong lesbian daughter, and Prudie (Emily Blunt), the tightly wound high school French teacher who feels her own husband (Mark Blucas) doesn’t understand her. Jocelyn agrees to join and asks someone else to come along — Grigg (Hugh Dancy), a fan of sci-fi books who she thinks will be a perfect fling for Sylvia. It gives nothing away to say that from the moment Grigg meets Jocelyn he is completely besotted with her.

Each book club member picks a Jane Austen book for which she (or, in the case of Northanger Abbey, he) will lead the discussion. Naturally, as they read, the book clubbers see their own lives reflected in the books. Prudie, trying so hard to be the cultured responsible woman her hippy mother (Lynn Redgrave in a wonderfully terrifying bit part) never was, is flirting with the idea of having an affair with a bad-boy student (he’s 18, the movie’s way of keeping a possible affair unethical but not illegal). Sylvia is working through her anger at being the upright person who stayed faithful. Allegra is also headstrong (ala Marianne Dashwood) at love whereas Jocelyn is too restrained and proud.

Not a single person’s story and the way it plays out will surprise you. The movie doesn’t have Austen’s sharpness or her occasionally wry tone (she’s not at all as soap opera-ish as all the heaving bosoms and top-hatted men in the movie adaptations of her books would suggest). But it isn’t the chick flick weepie I thought it’d be either. Brenneman’s occasional over-pronunciation of Spanish words and the general one-dimensional nature of the Allegra character don’t eclipse how fun it is to see Blunt make Prudie such a controlled mess. Baker’s “free-spirited older woman” character can get a little too Oprah-ish at times but Dancy is wonderfully not stupid (rare for the male characters in this kind of movie). The movie’s best scene may very well be when he compares a relationship in Mansfield Park to the Luke and Leia relationship in The Empire Strikes Back versus their relationship in The Return of the Jedi.

Austen books are near perfect examples of their genres — masterfully constructed and fun to read and reread. The Jane Austen Book Club is rife with flaws but thankfully it is also decidedly not as painful as a movie with such a title could have been. C+

Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, sexual content, brief strong language and some drug use. Written and directed by Robin Swicord (from the book by Karen Joy Fowler), The Jane Austen Book Club is an hour and 46 minutes long and is distributed in limited release by Sony Pictures Classics.