The Reeler


September 20, 2007

The Jane Austen Book Club

No-brainer chick-pleaser manages a couple of swings above its intellectual weight

Having spent perhaps the most miserable summer of my life reading all of Jane Austen's books, I figured (let's be honest, I worried) that I would be overly susceptible to the hard-wired charms of Robin Swicord's The Jane Austen Book Club. "All Austen, all the time is the perfect antidote to life," Bernadette (Kathy Baker) argues, rallying members for her brainchild, and it was true enough when I was 21. That was before the explosion of Austen adaptations and this new phase of excavation that has resulted in a film about the mysterious writer's life (Becoming Jane) and this one about the restorative, revelatory qualities of her books, and the rebellious act of reading in general.

The film's opening montage is something of an anti-ode to the indignities of that modern life: the cell phones, the ugly public behavior, the gym circuit, the cell phones, the bump and push, the cell phones. A somber group is then shown assembled at a dog funeral -- if the montage didn't make it clear we can now be sure we're in California -- and indeed the bright, blown out Sacramento skies and flatly sunny interior palettes give the film a look as conventional (and soothingly familiar) as a cappuccino commercial. The dearly departed was the pet of Jocelyn (Mario Bello), a dog breeder and fiercely single woman who seems immune to loneliness. Among her friends are Bernadette, a wry older woman with a trail of marriages and patterned scarves blowing in her wake, and Sylvia (Amy Brenneman), a comfortably married mother whose suddenly imploding marriage sends her into a midlife tailspin. Sylvia's lesbian, sky-diving daughter Allegra (Maggie Grace) moves back home to take care of mom, and joins the book club for lack of something better to do.

Rounding out the club are the barely contained basket case Prudie (Emily Blunt with a prim American accent and grotty, bobbed wig), whom Bernadette plucks from the line of an Austen film, and Grigg (Hugh Dancy, also speaking American and sporting some goofy biking shorts) a cute young thing Jocelyn -- a classic Emma -- recruits as a sparkly toy for Sylvia. The group agrees to read all six books over six months, meeting once a month at a member's home for drinks and discussion. This allows for a handy, chapter-driven structure, and plenty of softly lit reading montages; although the initial discussions (of Mansfield Park and Emma) seem a little remedial, anyone who has been to a book club meeting will recognize the black hole digressions and competitive hosting/eating.

It was love and money that Austen wrote about, because, as she herself observed, what else is there? The second in that equation is acutely absent from the problems of these affluent northern Californians, and it's too bad, although Grigg is lightly mocked for his nouveau riche, suburban homestead, and the subplot with Prudie and her cloddish husband touch on notions of breeding and stations in life. Both are unsatisfying endeavors and the latter simply enforces the doubt that such a self-styled aesthete (Prudie only seems to wear Chanel sheaths, rubbing almost everyone in the group the wrong way with her sniffy opinions and lapses into French) could possibly marry Captain America.

More successfully done is the film's exploration of how you can get to know someone through literature -- their taste, their preferences, their readings, the stories that attract them and the emotional physics behind that gravitational pull. Grigg impresses Jocelyn with his insights into Northanger Abbey, finding something she had not seen and exposing a part of himself in the process, when she finally reads the books he has recommended to her, it is a revelation how well he has assessed her taste, her mind. Their tense, twittery dynamic (Bello is wonderful as a corked up woman who can't seem to help stepping on even the most harmless, flirty interaction with a man) is delicately built, and while the space that Swicord gives for her story to unfold might seem overly generous for such lightweight material, it also gives several of the emotional payoffs a surprising punch.

There is also a nice closing riff on the enduring importance of notes and letters -- the writing and storytelling we are all capable of -- which exemplifies The Jane Austen Book Club's refreshing whiff of intelligence within a genre that trades in the obvious. Time was clearly taken here to do better than fine with material that had a sizeable no-brainer audience built right into the title. It's an effort as touching (if not anachronistic) as that taken to sit down and write a letter -- those critical time capsules so rarely rendered tactile anymore, so rarely labored over with one eye on personal history.

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