The Jane Austen Book Club
Director : Robin Swicord
Screenplay : Robin Swicord (based on the novel by Karen Joy Fowler)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2007
Stars : Maria Bello (Jocelyn), Emily Blunt (Prudie), Kathy Baker (Bernadette), Amy Brenneman (Sylvia), Maggie Grace (Allegra), Jimmy Smits (Daniel), Marc Blucas (Dean), Hugh Dancy (Grigg), Parisa Fitz-Henley (Corinne)
While it certainly helps to be familiar with the works of Jane Austen and to be able to distinguish between, say, Elizabeth Bennett and Marianne Dashwood, it is not a perquisite to enjoying screenwriter-turned-first-time-director Robin Swicord's romantic dramedy The Jane Austen Book Club. The concept, derived from Karen Joy Fowler's bestselling 2004 novel, is almost too clever and cute for its own good--a group of southern California women bond together by reading and discussing Austen's six novels even as their personal turmoil and romantic entanglements reflect the very material they're reading--but Swicord maintains just enough grounding to keep the film from becoming cloying. It is a rather impressive balancing act, as Swicord manages to juggle interest in several major subplots with only a few drops.
The group is formed largely as a response to loss. Jocelyn (Maria Bello), the proudly single member of the group (she refuses to feel bad about being alone in her early forties) loses one of her beloved Rhodesian ridgebacks, which for her is a substantial tragedy. At about the same time, Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) is left by her husband Daniel (Jimmy Smits) for another woman, thus ending 20 years of marriage. Her spunky, twentysomething lesbian daughter Allegra (Maggie Grace) moves in with her, but it's little consolation, as Sylvia finds herself suddenly cut loose after two decades of emotional security.
The matriarch of the group is Bernadette (Kathy Baker), one of those delightful sixtysomething free spirits who never seems to be fazed by anything, including having already been divorced six times. She introduces the group to Prudie (Emily Blunt), an uptight high school French teacher who is miffed that her husband (Marc Blucas) would rather take business associates to the NBA playoffs than go with her to Europe. The final member of the group, and the only one with an XY chromosome, is Grigg (Hugh Dancy), a young, slightly geekish, but intriguing self-made computer guru who Jocelyn thinks would be the perfect antidote for Sylvia's suddenly-single woes. The only problem is that Grigg has an affinity for Jocelyn, even as she's constantly pushing him away.
The narrative is organized around a six-month period, with each month being marked by a group meeting in which they discuss one of Austen's six novels. In between the meetings we see how the lives of the various characters are playing out, sometimes separately, sometimes in tandem. Because the story is spread across so many characters, there are bound to be ups and downs, with some parts working better than others. Allegra's romantic travails feel the most inconsequential, partially because Swicord films most of it in overly gauzy romantic terms that seems much more deliberately movie-ish than the other subplots (one gets the sense that she is afraid that a mainstream audience will be uncomfortable with a lesbian character, so all her scenes need to be as beautiful and tasteful as possible, which means dull). On the other end, Prudie's increasingly flirtation with one of her high school students, a confident theater hunk, is just kind of icky.
The subplots that work the best are the ones involving Sylvia and her battle to delineate her own identity separate from her husband's and the Jocelyn/Grigg tango of thwarted attraction. In the Sylvia story, Swicord cuts deep to the heart of what it means to have your life turned upside down. Sylvia is not a sap devoid of personality, but she had invested a great deal of herself in her marriage, only to find it unexpectedly stripped away (the manner in which her husband dumps her at a restaurant is especially cruel, even if he doesn't mean it to be). The Jocelyn/Grigg subplot provides the film's most conventional romantic pleasures in that it provides just the right amount of delayed gratification; you know they should end up together, it's just a matter of when and how many misunderstandings and delays stand between the here and now and the happily ever after. Plus, the geek in me can't help but like any movie in which a guy successfully woos a beautiful woman by getting her to read science fiction.
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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