Jane Austen Book Club

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The more familiar you are with the hugely readable novels of Jane Austen, one of the most influential masters of English literature, the richer your experience with "The Jane Austen Book Club" will be. Yet like the male characters in the movie -- who might well confuse her name with the capital of Texas -- ignorance is only a slight drawback. The film's characters are lively, the women all look terrific (the guys do too, for that matter), and its many romantic story threads weave into artfully told tales of love lost and found.

This is a chick flick with a vengeance, of course, but the audience for these films is not insignificant. A smart, animated cast helps to make up for the predictability and slight preciousness of what is, after all, a literary conceit better suited for the printed page. While the film presents a marketing challenge for Sony Pictures Classics, it should do extremely well on DVD.

In her lifetime, Austen (1775-1817) wrote six novels. Thus, six is the key number for director Robin Swicord, the well-known screenwriter transitioning here to directing, and for Karen Joy Fowler, who wrote the popular novel of the same name. Set in and around California's capital city of Sacramento, the story concerns six book club members who meet over six months to discuss each of Austen's six books.

Each story line plays off an Austen story. Characters comment on the various novels from the perspective of current romantic joys or woes, offering different interpretations of the actions and secret lives of the books' characters. So whatever the shortcomings of this literary construct, it remains a joy to experience a movie so in love with good writing.

The spiritual center of the film is Kathy Baker's Bernadette, a spry woman in her late 50s who has been married and divorced -- yes, six times. She forms the book club to distract her grieving friend, dog breeder Jocelyn (Maria Bello), who has lost her prize Rhodesian Ridgeback.

Meanwhile, Jocelyn sees the club as a means to occupy her inconsolable friend, Sylvia (Amy Brenneman), who is going through a traumatic divorce to Daniel (Jimmy Smits). Ditto Sylvia's lesbian daughter Allegra (Maggie Grace), who joins the club to support her mom even as she gets her own romantic life squared away. All the while, Allegra participates in extreme sports her parents know nothing about.

Prudie (Emily Blunt) is the emotional wreck of the bunch and the least sympathetic character. A high-school French teacher who has never been to France, she has married Dean (Marc Blucas), a young man with whom she has absolutely nothing in common. So she wallows in self-pity, chastises him in front of friends and considers going to bed with a student (Kevin Zegers, who fortunately doesn't look like a student, being the same age as Blunt).

The male ringer in the book club is Grigg (Hugh Dancy), recruited by Jocelyn in hopes he might date Sylvia when clearly his romantic gaze is fixed on her. This predictability is fairly typical of nearly all the plot lines. Character arcs are predetermined and heavily reliant on Austen's.

Beyond Swicord's rigged plots (courtesy of her source material, of course) is their all-too-neat tidiness. Every character walks on stage at just the right moment. Everyone has a well-defined role to play. Every plot line is destined for a happy ending without a flicker of concern about how real life works. This is art imitating art.

In the film's one moment of surreal whimsy, a traffic light flashes "What Would Jane Do" at a character. In the end, Austen controls things much too much. The modern world is much different than Regency England, a point made during the opening credits that portray modern life as nerve-racking and mean-spirited. The film needs to take into account those differences. Someone needs to violate the Jane Austen Code of Ethics and Behavior. No one does.

Tech credits are pro.

THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB
Sony Pictures Classics
A John Calley/Robin Swicord production in association with Mockingbird Pictures
Credits:
Writer/director: Robin Swicord
Based on the novel by: Karen Joy Fowler
Producers: John Calley, Julie Lynn, Diana Napper
Executive producer: Marshall Rose
Director of photography: John Toon
Production designer: Rusty Smith
Music: Aaron Zigman
Co-producer: Kelly Thomas
Costume designer: Johnetta Boone
Editor: Maryann Brandon
Cast:
Jocelyn: Maria Bello
Prudie: Emily Blunt
Bernadette: Kathy Baker
Sylvia: Amy Brenneman
Allegra: Maggie Grace
Daniel
Jimmy Smits
Grigg: Hugh Dancy
Dean: Marc Blucas
Trey: Kevin Zegers
Sky: Lynn Redgrave
Running time -- 103 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13
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