Eugene Weekly : Movies : 10.4.07


Book Talk
Life, love and six novels

THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB: Written and directed by Robin Swicord. Based on the novel by Karen Joy Fowler. Cinematography, John Toon. Music, Aaron Zigman. Starring Maria Bello, Emily Blunt, Kathy Baker, Amy Brenneman, Maggie Grace, Hugh Dancy, Jimmy Smits and Marc Blucas. Sony Pictures Classics, 2007. 106 minutes. PG-13.

Emily Blunt as Prudie in The Jane Austen Book Club

After an introductory montage that encompasses countless small, annoying things that can happen to a person in a day — not being able to reach the parking garage ticket, spilling coffee on yourself, vending machines that won’t take your money, you name it — it’s easy to feel sympathetic toward the six characters at the heart of The Jane Austen Book Club. Clearly, their lives can’t be going that well. Jocelyn (Maria Bello) has just lost her beloved dog — and held a funeral for the poor thing. Prudie (Emily Blunt), who feels distant from her husband Dean (Marc Blucas), is carrying on a dangerous flirtation with a student at the school where she, outfitted in lovely black dresses, teaches French. Sylvia’s (Amy Brenneman) husband Daniel (Jimmy Smits) wants a divorce. Sylvia’s daughter Allegra (Maggie Grace) and the club’s lone male member, Grigg (Hugh Dancy), start off well enough, but they’ll hit road bumps. Only Bernadette (Kathy Baker), the group’s open-hearted, perpetually knitting matriarch, seems content.

Unfortunately, the movie — based on Karen Joy Fowler’s bestselling novel — hits some bumps of its own. It’s a sweet film, a look at the relationship between life and fiction and at female friendship, but it’s continually just a little bit off, lining up missteps and out-of-character moments that jar the viewer out of the story. The cental conceit feels a bit too forced; the soundtrack often doesn’t fit; the characters do things that don’t make sense, even if you take into consideration that people often don’t make sense. The movie almost feels unfinished, like a novel that needs one more revision, one more draft.

But for Austen fans, there’s plenty to enjoy (for those of us who’ve not read every Austen novel, scenes of the group discussing each one in turn sometimes drag even though the characters’ opinions of the novels — and the thematic meaning in each reader’s choice of book — reveal their takes on life). And there is a certain charm to simply enjoying this group of actors doing good work in a relaxed film that celebrates the joy of reading and the beauty in the way fiction and life reflect each other in the mind of a reader. Jocelyn is meant to be the film’s center — the unmarried, slightly older woman who won’t settle for anything other than perfection and thus breeds dogs instead of settling down — but the two truest characters are the impulsive Allegra, the youngest member of the group, and the geeky Grigg, whose every quirk is dead-on for a young nerd with too much money and not enough sense (his phone rings as if it were R2-D2; on his mantel stands a row of toy robots). As Allegra, Grace shows a warmth and maturity that she hid well as the spoiled Shannon on Lost while Dancy has an awkward charm that suits his character perfectly. Emily Blunt’s Prudie is the heartbreaker of the lot: When her batty mother (Lynn Redgrave in a gleefully messy cameo) shows up, her presence makes it painfully clear how hard Prudie works to make herself something else, something different, something too exhausting to maintain.

Like Becoming Jane, The Jane Austen Book Club doesn’t reach the levels of wit, sharp observation and superb storytelling that either Austen’s novels or the best adaptations of them achieve though it leans on her themes and concerns. But there’s nothing wrong with taking this one in as a gentle pause, a kind story of timeless, everyday trials and love, before fall’s onslaught of heavyweight Oscar-bait arrives.

The Jane Austen Book Club opens Friday, Oct. 5, at the Bijou.