Review of “The Jane Austen Book Club”

Club instigator Bernadette forms the group as a distraction for both Jocelyn, who is grieving her dog's death, and Sylvia, who is grieving the infidelity of her husband, Daniel (played in a thankless role by Jimmy Smits). Having met Prudie by chance at an Austen film festival (yes, as a character cheerfully chirps, it's "all Austen all the time" here), Bernadette invites her to join the group to get her mind off her husband's cancellation of their planned trip to Paris.

Token guy Grigg comes on board when Jocelyn, the group's self-described Emma, invites him as a possible paramour for Sylvia. Grigg, in turn, only has eyes for Jocelyn. Hmm, sounds familiar; I could have sworn I've read that somewhere.

The members settle into their club, where each is assigned to lead the discussion on one of Austen's novels. As they read though her works, we realize that their lives parallel those on the page. And in case you're rusty on your metaphors, each novel corresponds with a character: Prudie is Persuasion, Sylvia is Mansfield Park, Allegra is Sense and Sensibility, and so on.

The alchemy of women getting together to talk about books is hard to resist at times. But those looking for a deep literary dissection of Austen would be better served just starting their own book club. Instead, the monthly gatherings are largely just excuses for inside jokes and clever one-liners, some at the non-Janeites' expense, both on-screen and in the audience.

"No, they're not sequels," Jocelyn tells a hapless Grigg, who has bought all the books collected in one volume and wonders if they should be read in order.

As in almost all films adapted from novels, the characterizations seem rushed. Clichéd shorthand informs our initial views of each woman. We know Bernadette is bohemian because of her colorful attire and spiky hair. We know Sylvia is a mess because of the untamed ball of frizz on her head (note that once she starts to pull her life back together, she also learns how to reapply conditioner).

And that tight bob combined with schoolmarm gear on Prudie? Hello, repressed.

As is also almost always inevitable in works with large casts, some characters get the short shrift. Allegra and Bernadette play out like the colorful side dishes to the main courses of Jocelyn, Sylvia and Prudie.

In fact, if you came looking for hot girlie action based on the film's trailer, set a stop watch. The 105-minute film has less than 10 minutes of purely lesbian content. And those scenes are often just brief flashes of Allegra and her girlfriend du jour together in innocuous domestic settings. The filmmakers get credit, however, for handling Allegra's sexuality as a matter-of-fact nonissue.

Book author Fowler has said that the extreme sports-loving character of Allegra is fashioned after her own adventurous daughter, Shannon. However, that familiar bond hasn't resulted in much insight into Allegra's psyche.

Why does she jump out of airplanes and climb rock walls? A subliminal desire to bring her parents together? A subconscious love of hospital rooms? We don't really know, since the film doesn't let her be much more than impetuous and pretty.

Still, what saves The Jane Austen Book Club from the junk heap of chick flick rubbish is its cast. Immensely likeable and undeniably talented, Bello, Brenneman, Blunt and company give the film's breezy dialogue punch and humor.

Fans of Blunt's work in My Summer of Love or The Devil Wears Prada will see a true chameleon emerging, as the British actress assumes an American accent and pinched, nasal tone to play Prudie. She is a woman prone to using pretentious French phrases to mask her insecurity about her marriage to her sports-watching, beer-from-a-bottle drinking husband, Dean (Marc Blucas, "Captain Cardboard" Riley of Buffy fame, showing us nothing here that would erase his old nickname).

Bello, in turn, continues to be one of the most underrated actresses working today. Her blond, all-American looks belie an actress who blends smart and sexy, funny and frank like few others.

First-time director Robin Swicord (the experienced screenwriter behind Practical Magic and Memoirs of a Geisha), has a light touch with the material and the actresses, but ultimately she is handicapped by the source material's own conceit. Anyone even remotely familiar with Austen's novels can tell you how this will end. But Jane never would have tied up their stories so tritely.

The film opens with a line from Austen's most famous work, Pride and Prejudice: "Is not general incivility the very essence of love?" The Jane Austen Book Club does little to explore the incivility of love. Instead, it examines the universality of our desire to be loved.

Which just goes to show you that while Jane Austen's first name may be generic, her message remains as relevant as ever.

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