A Film to Curl Up With: 'Jane Austen Book Club' Has Plenty of Character
Please don't call "The Jane Austen Book Club" a chick flick.
That label, tossed off to describe movies by, about and for women, isusually used in the pejorative sense, to dismiss by-the-numbers pieces ofromantic, too-cute fluff. And, okay, "The Jane Austen Book Club" is allthat, but it's so much more. Smart and self-aware, it's an unusually frothyshowcase for some of Hollywood's finest actresses of a certain age.
And with its literate merging of good sense and passionate sensibility, itpossesses all the pleasures of a guilty pleasure, just none of the guilt.It's a decadent, gooey hot fudge sundae of a movie, with whipped cream anda cherry on top. But after indulging in it, you won't hate yourself in themorning.
Based on Karen Joy Fowler's novel of the same title, "The Jane Austen Book Club" follows five Sacramento women (and a man whom one of them drags along) as they make their way through Austen's six novels, their own lives taking on resemblances to the beloved author's heady plots.
At first glance, these by turns flinty and flaky female characters seemmore confected than fully realized: Kathy Baker plays the group's bohemianmatriarch, Bernadette, who takes a spontaneous liking to a fragile youngwoman she meets in a movie line. That would be Prudie (Emily Blunt), a highschool French teacher whose troubled marriage is thrown into sharp reliefby her attraction to a dreamy-eyed senior named Trey (Kevin Zegers). "Helooks at me like he's the spoon," she says at one point, "and I'm the dishof ice cream." As they say in France: Le sigh. (And as they say in America:Sister, I feel you.)
In short order, Bernadette has enlisted Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) and herdaughter Allegra (Maggie Grace), as well as Sylvia's best friend Jocelyn (Maria Bello), the most fiercely independent member of the group, at leastromantically speaking (she prefers Rhodesian ridgebacks to people). WhenJocelyn befriends a young science-fiction fan named Grigg (Hugh Dancy), aquorum of sorts is reached. And one by one, each character brings her orhis perspective to bear on Austen's enduringly relevant narratives of love,loss, manners and stinging social satire.
It is a truth widely acknowledged that Austen has more than worn out herwelcome on the big screen lately, her novels having been adapted withcompulsive regularity and, most recently, her own love life being examinedin the speculative romance "Becoming Jane." But even those filmgoers fed upwith Austen-mania are encouraged to cross their own picket lines for "TheJane Austen Book Club," which, while indulging in unabashed Jane-love,maintains enough of a hold on contemporary reality, and a light enoughtouch with the literary allusions, to qualify as a nifty rom-com on its ownterms.
A predilection for Austen is helpful but not required to enjoy a movie thatderives as much observant humor from the indignities of modern life (whichare wittily retailed in the opening montage) as from Austen's own denselylayered texts. And like Austen herself, screenwriter Robin Swicord, whomakes a promising directorial debut here, is all about subtext. At onepoint a character says disbelievingly of her ex: "He was wearing a jacket.With a zipper." The sartorial implications couldn't be clearer: He's gonecompletely insane.
Swicord keeps the story moving at such an efficient pace that by necessity,some characters never come fully into focus: Bernadette, the den mother, isrelegated to wearing bold textiles and delivering wise zingers while youngAllegra goes from sweet to sour for no apparent reason. The stories drivingthe movie belong to Jocelyn, whom Bello plays with peppery sensuality, andPrudie, the club's resident snob who, it turns out, has more than earnedher myriad defenses. (Between this and her work in "The Devil Wears Prada,"Blunt is becoming one of the best comedic actresses on screen, andcertainly its most delicious bitter pill.)
Thanks to Bello and Blunt, "The Jane Austen Book Club" seems populated lessby characters than people, who even when put through some unlikely pacesemerge as somehow believable, especially in their self-deceptive foibles.The appeal of the women is more than matched by Dancy and Zegers, who areboth delectable man-candy, sure, but are treated as more than just objectsin a film that, in addition to its many charms, resists the temptation tomale-bash. (Dancy nails an especially ingratiating scene when he arrives atthe club's first meeting caffeinated out of his mind.)
It's to the credit of "The Jane Austen Book Club" that everyone -- male,female and canine -- is given their due, and dignity and their own versionof a happy ending. If a film this funny, this sexy and this humanistqualifies as a chick flick, then it gives the genre a good name.
Trailer & Office Site: www.sonypictures.com.au/movies/janeaustenbookclub/index.html
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 28, 2007