I feel like Hollywood is conspiring to make me read a Jane Austen novel. There have been two adaptations of “Pride & Prejudice” in the last few years, the quasi-biopic “Becoming Jane” earlier this year, and now “The Jane Austen Book Club,” in which six modern-day readers discover how Austen’s stories are relevant to their lives.
I give up! I will read a Jane Austen book! I promise! Just leave me alone!
Based on Karen Joy Fowler’s bestseller, “The Jane Austen Book Club” is such a chick flick that when it was over, I had begun ovulating. But despite a shaky beginning where it seems doomed to mediocrity and blandness, the film ultimately emerges as an intelligent, witty production, with honest characters and likable performances. By the end its charms had won me over — though I definitely get the sense that it’s even better if you’ve read some Austen. (OK, OK! I’ll go to the library tomorrow!)
We begin with a quote from “Pride & Prejudice”: “Is not general incivility the very essence of love?” Accompanying this is a montage of modern-day rudeness and inconvenience: honking horns, malfunctioning ATMs, loud cell-phone-talkers, taxicab stealers, and so forth. Austen wrote in prim, proper era. Can her characters possibly be relevant in today’s hectic world?
Ah, but of course. We meet four Sacramento women who lead different lives but who all share an affection for Austen’s novels. Jocelyn (Maria Bello) has never married and avoids romantic entanglements, devoting all her attention to her dogs instead. Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) has just seen her husband of 25 years (Jimmy Smits) walk out on her. Their grown-up daughter, Allegra (Maggie Grace), is a lesbian who sells hippie jewelry and enjoys extreme sports. Bernadette (Kathy Baker), the oldest and a sort of bossy big sister to everyone else, treats marriage as an extreme sport of its own, and has engaged in it several times.
Bernadette brings a new woman to the circle, the aptly named Prudie (Emily Blunt), a young high school French teacher who fears she no longer relates to her boorish husband (Marc Blucas). Bernadette knows that Prudie will fit in with their Jane Austen book club because she finds her weeping outside a theater showing “Mansfield Park.”
Austen wrote six novels, though, and there are just five participants in the book club, with each taking responsibility to lead the discussion on a particular book. Who will fill the sixth slot?
Why, that’ll be Grigg (Hugh Dancy), who you will notice is a man. Jocelyn meets him and thinks he’d be a good distraction for the just-divorced Sylvia, so she invites him to join. Grigg thinks Jocelyn is interested in him for herself, though, and he’s keen on that idea. Grigg is financially secure due to some software-related deal, and he’s a sci-fi/fantasy nerd who keeps trying to get Jocelyn to break out of her comfort zone and read one of his favorite authors. After all, he’s doing something new by reading Austen.
What ensues is a pleasant and not-too-contrived story, spanning six months (one for each Austen novel) as these six friends deal with each other and with their own private affairs. There is ample discussion of Austen’s books, and their relevance to the characters’ current dilemmas is underlined. “What would Jane do?” is the mantra, although what they really mean is “What would Jane’s fictional heroines do?” Close enough, though.
All six of the leads are relatable in some way, from Sylvia’s heartbreak to Jocelyn’s fearfulness to Grigg’s eagerness. The story (which has been adapted and directed by Robin Swicord in her first feature) gives them room to interact with one another, their personalities coming through as they discuss their lives and the lives of Austen’s characters. Swicord expertly prevents the film from feeling like nothing but chit-chat, as each scene serves a story purpose beyond just letting the gals talk about Austen.
The film’s message, amusingly, is that Jane Austen isn’t just for girls! Why, even Prudie’s manly, sports-watching, wife-ignoring husband can fall prey to Austen’s considerable charms. Maybe they’re overstating the case a little, and certainly someone who has read Austen and not enjoyed the experience will scoff at the film’s pro-Austen propaganda. But the movie’s sunny demeanor and frivolous (but not dumb!) story make it a winner.
B (1 hr., 45 min.; )