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It is a universally acknowledged truth that a movie in possession of a title such as The Jane Austen Book Club will be in want of a male audience. Based on Karen Joy Fowler’s novel of the same name, Robin Swicord’s film is exactly what you’d expect it to be: breezy one moment, somber the next, and, of course, full of women, sentimentality, and reaction shots of dogs. And when each showing lets out, it’s likely there won’t be a long line at the men’s room.
The somewhat interesting idea in Fowler’s novel is that real people can find elements in Austen’s work to guide their own lives. But it’s a gimmick that’s set up to fail. Go too deep with the theory, and you risk alienating viewers who aren’t Janeites. Skimp on it, and there’s little else to differentiate the story from countless other romantic comedies. Swicord, a first-time feature director, decided to skimp, offering characters and plot turns whose resemblances to Austen are often too superficial to be recognizable.
Five women and one man comprise the titular Sacramento, Calif., book club, and each is a shameless type. Bernadette (Kathy Baker) is the group’s organizer and its eldest member, a currently single, freewheeling sort who’s been married as often as Austen published. (That’d be six times.) Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) has just been dumped by her husband (Jimmy Smits) of two decades. Sylvia’s daughter, Allegra (Maggie Grace), is a lesbian and extreme-sport enthusiast who immediately clashes with Prudie (Emily Blunt), a young, snooty high school French teacher with a severe black bob and an unhappy marriage. And Jocelyn (Maria Bello), the arguable focus of the story, is Sylvia’s best friend, a never-married dog breeder who impulsively invites the handsome, chick-flick-ready Grigg (Hugh Dancy) to join the club when he hits on her at a conference.
Grigg agrees, with a caveat: He’ll give Austen a chance if she’ll try science fiction. The chemistry between them as they argue the merits of each of their preferred styles of literature is obvious, and when Jocelyn asks Grigg how he feels about older women, it seems clear where this is going. But Jocelyn doesn’t want Grigg for herself. Instead, she means to set him up with Sylvia, and in this case the unforeseen plot turn is irritating: Jocelyn never lets either of them know about her intentions, leaving both the characters and the audience baffled when she switches from being sly to getting angry at Grigg for not asking Sylvia out. “You need to dance with Sylvia tonight!” she admonishes him before they all meet for a library benefit. But wouldn’t you know it, as soon as Grigg shows the slightest interest in her friend, Jocelyn turns pouty. And yet later yells at Grigg for not sufficiently appreciating what a great person Sylvia is. It’s a back-and-forth even Elizabeth Bennett would find exhausting.
Swicord’s script is woefully underdeveloped, with the passage of time marked by montages of the members reading each book and only cursory subplots for most of the characters. Prudie’s may be as hole-y as the others—it’s impossible to imagine how the button-down romantic teacher ended up with a distant, jockish husband—but because of Blunt, this story is the most compelling. Quite the opposite of Blunt’s outspoken, nearly boorish character in her breakout movie, The Devil Wears Prada, her Prudie is quiet and mannered, peppering her speech with French phrases that make her seem arrogant. But she speaks slowly and avoids eye contact, often running her hands down her bob as if to squeeze out a clear thought from a brain noisy with thoughts of her miserable home life.
One of the movie’s most realistic and raw moments involves a fight between Prudie and her husband when she thinks he was flirting with another woman at a party, a blonde “with those ridiculous plastic boobs,” she cries. “Is that what you go for?” Unfortunately, any credibility in that storyline is wiped out with the suggestion that a caveman need only spend an afternoon reading Austen aloud to undergo a Mr. Darcy transformation.
Blunt may be the standout in this terrific ensemble, but that’s because no one else is given material worthy of their talents—Brenneman cries a lot, Baker tosses off bon mots, and the typically intense Bello is reduced to romantic-comedy giddiness and embarrassing dialogue such as, “Reading Jane Austen is a freakin’ minefield!” Dancy gets a pass: Not only is his character supposed to be little more than charming window dressing, the unthreateningly handsome actor is a much better fit as Grigg than in serious leading roles such as in last year’s Beyond the Gates. The cast is ultimately wasted on a film that, at best, might have been a CliffsNotes version of Austen but more closely resembles a bargain-bin romance.