The Jane Austen Book Club

The group of six in The Jane Austen Book Club tend to see Austen’s work through the prism of whatever’s going on in their lives at the moment. We could be cynical and call this narcissism, or we could be generous and say it’s a tribute to Austen’s wisdom and staying power. I choose to be generous, because the movie is, too. It’s adapted from a 2004 novel by Karen Joy Fowler, who started out as a science-fiction writer, and one of her characters here speaks passionately in defense of sci-fi as a genre that can be as wise about human nature as Austen was. Not Transformers, of course. In a way, though, a movie about (mostly) fortyish women discussing literature and their own feelings is more bizarre in the context of mainstream Hollywood than Decepticons are.

The film sometimes feels like a TV movie, partly due to rookie director Robin Swicord’s network-style blocking, partly due to the cast of prime-time-drama favorites: Kathy Baker (Northern Exposure), Amy Brenneman (NYPD Blue, Judging Amy), Maria Bello (ER), Jimmy Smits (L.A. Law, NYPD Blue), even Marc Blucas (Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Then there are visiting Brits Emily Blunt (The Devil Wears Prada) and Hugh Dancy (recuperating nicely from Basic Instinct 2 and Blood and Chocolate). It’s a good, homey cast, and nobody really gets a Big Scene — it’s likable ensemble work, with Bello and Blunt the standouts as, respectively, a contented single mourning the recent death of her dog and a brittle French teacher who’s falling out of love with busy husband Blucas.

Baker, the group’s den mother, starts the Jane Austen book club to distract various women of her acquaintance from their discontents. Brenneman, for instance, is reeling because her husband (Smits) has just dumped her for another woman; she joins the club along with her lesbian daughter (Maggie Grace), who flits from relationship to relationship. The group needs a sixth member, and find one in Grigg (Dancy), a tech-support guy who bonded with his dad over paperback space operas and never got over it. He, it turns out, has much to contribute to the discussions and to the romantic drama in the group, wherein Bello, trying to fix him up with Brenneman, winds up falling for him herself.

The Jane Austen Book Club is a cozy, tasteful affair about the problems of the well-to-do — there’s no literate minimum-wage worker in the club, though maybe the token inclusion of one would be more insulting than the absence of one. Then again, Austen herself focused on the moneyed, the better to gently pick at their social mores. Fowler and Swicord don’t really do that, perhaps due more to the 21st-century American setting than to their own frailties (and really, who could outdo Austen on the politics of love?). The book and movie are intended as a love letter to Jane and an attempt at an Austenesque social circle baffled by the heart’s stirrings. Every month, the five women and one man retreat to a nicely appointed household, pass the wine around, and dissect one of the books — though, in practice, they may as well be discussing James Patterson, since the talk always turns back to themselves.

Swicord knows how to write women (she adapted Little Women and Memoirs of a Geisha), and she’s fair enough to flesh out the male characters so that the man-bashing is kept to a minimum. (Smits’ character, for example, doesn’t dump his wife for a younger woman — which she finds even more hurtful and inexplicable, since his leaving for a woman half his age would be vile but at least more readily understood.) The film probably won’t send anyone hastening to the bookstore for an Austen omnibus, and should probably be taken as the cute minor literary offshoot it is, but it does satisfy a certain thirst for conversation for its own sake at the movies. It’s the sort of middlebrow ensemble piece that used to open every week, instead of inching into theaters on a slow platform release as The Jane Austen Book Club is doing, as if it were as odd and inaccessible as Inland Empire or Mad Cowgirl. Again, in today’s context, it probably is. 4

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