The Jane Austen Book Club

2007-09-21 (Limited release)

You look like a perfect fit

For a girl in need of a tourniquet.

But can you save me?

— Aimee Mann, “Save Me”

Who can be in doubt of what followed?

— Jane Austen, Persuasion

It’s so hard to read books nowadays. Distractions abound, everyone’s short on time, and really, isn’t it just easier to see the movie? And yet, as hard as it is to read, it’s even harder to show reading in the movies. Thus, the central dilemma of The Jane Austen Book Club: how to make the least bit interesting the primary activity undertaken by our protagonists? Sadly and symptomatically, the movie has no good answer: the mode is montage, the images banal in the extreme, with readers furrowing brows, twiddling hair, sitting in shimmery sunlight or sunk into comfy armchairs.

This increasingly annoying business shows up repeatedly in The Jane Austen Book Club, that is, whenever the members are preparing for the next meeting. Said members are five women, each feeling beset and unloved in her own way, plus one pretty young man. They meet each month to discuss a book. Predictably white and affluent, the readers are also romantically beset, which apparently makes the proposal that they take up “All Jane, all the time” tremendously inviting. It’s also no surprise that each of their “issues” is reducible to a phrase or plot point from one of the novels, and so each reader will work out his or her dilemma according to a clever application of fictional wisdom and behavior modeling. And it goes without saying — as they are both devoted to Jane and live inside a bound-to-crowd-please movie — that they all butt into one another’s affairs and don’t get the irony.

The instigator is much-divorced Bernadette (Kathy Baker), who wears gaudy outfits and bracelets that clink when she gestures. On hearing that her good friend Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) has been dumped by her husband Daniel (Jimmy Smits) in favor of a coworker, Bernie asserts that reading Austen will provide suitable diversion. When Sylvia’s daughter Allegra (Maggie Grace) moves back home to help mom cope, she’s also invited to join in. An extreme sports aficionado and oh yes, a lesbian who wears t-shirts declaring as much, Allegra takes out her anger at her father by skydiving wand not telling her anxious mom. This connects her with a fellow skydiver girlfriend, whose primary function appears to be supplementing the t-shirts in identifying Allegra’s identification. In a word, the girlfriend is superfluous, and her eventual betrayal and summary eviction from the narrative all the worse for it.

Slightly more knotted into the plot’s fabric is self-declared singleton Jocelyn (Maria Bello). Introduced by way of an extraordinarily tedious gag (she has trouble managing the speed of her treadmill at the gym), Jocelyn is a dog breeder so devoted to her charges that the death of one brings her to near collapse at the funeral. She’s apparently so undone by her grief that she makes an atypical spontaneous decision, inviting Grigg (Hugh Dancey) to join the club after one one-minute meeting at a hotel bar. He’s sweet and geeky, and a science fiction fan who pushes Jocelyn to read Octavia Butler and Ursula K. Le Guin.

The fact that he picks up Austen for the first time to please her but she resists science fiction on something she terms principle (she only likes books about “real people”) makes Grigg look compassionate and open-minded, all good because he’s plainly crushing on Jocelyn. Unfortunately — and so like an Austenish meddler — she has him picked out as a beau for Sylvia, who needs the ego boost such a vibrant, polite, and coincidentally filthy-rich suitor might provide. Though Jocelyn and Grigg both appear to be fairly bright, neither figures out how exactly they resemble the characters they’re supposedly dissecting.

And they’re not even the most maddening of the group. That would be high school French teacher Prudie (Emily Blunt), who is bored with her husband Dean (Marc Blucas, still playing Riley), arrogant among the other readers, and lusting after one of her students, the self-appreciative Trey (Kevin Zegers). Prudie’s dysfunction might be laid partially at the feet of her hideous caricature of a mother, Sky (Lynn Redgrave), who arrives in Los Angeles and promptly lights a joint on the sidewalk at the airport, much to Prudie’s twisty-faced horror. But this bad-mom subplot, so standard and even amusing in Austen, is here just ugly and simplistic. To make such individual maternal excess look somehow causal for Prudie’s own apparent “prudishness” (the other readers make mean fun of her behind her back) misses the class and gender politics that Austen mined so exquisitely.

By the time Prudie’s pondering an actually tryst with Trey and seeing a crosswalk sign flash, “What would Jane do?”, the movie has abandoned any aspiration to Austen’s wit or social critique, and lapsed instead into total triteness. What does it matter that she reads Austen, reads French literature, or even convinces her sports-fan husband to read with her? She and her fellow book club members are trapped in a strained, antic, loveless romantic comedy, where the end is ordained from the start.

RATING 5 / 10