Wednesday, June 18, 2008

What would Jane do? Romancing the novel in The Jane Austen Book Club

Yet another Jane Austen movie? After so many film versions of her work and the highly speculative “love affair” of the writer in Becoming Jane, one might think that the Austen stock would run out by now, but no. As directed by Robin Swicord from a novel by Karen Jay Fowler, The Jane Austen Book Club concerns several Sacramento ladies and one guy meeting once a month to discuss Jane Austen novels. The premise sounds sickeningly cloying and chick flicky, but by keeping the storyline rooted in the present, Swicord has crafted a surprisingly engaging film.

Made in the tradition of Four Weddings and a Funeral, The Jane Austen Book Club begins with a funeral for a dog. As the assorted formally dressed guests linger in her living room after the service, Daniel (Jimmy Smits) gets exasperated with the whole thing, but his wife Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) says that, after all, Jocelyn “raised him from a puppy.” The handsome dog-breeder Jocelyn (Maria Bello) prefers bossing dogs around to the unpredictability of human romance. Meanwhile, Daniel promptly dumps Sylvia and twenty years of marriage for a coworker, saying “I’m tired of lying to you. I won’t give her up. That’s nonnegotiable.” Devastated, Sylvia gets help from her attractive lesbian daughter Allegra (Maggie Grace). I wonder if Allegra corresponds to any Austen character, not only due to her sexual orientation, but also because she likes to live on the edge. She skydives, climbs walls, and therefore ends up frequenting the emergency room multiple times in the course of the film, which at least as the advantage of bringing her estranged parents back together.

Among the more neurotic characters, Emily Blunt plays the French high school instructor Prudie who is unhappily married to a boorish sports-minded husband who would rather watch a NBA final than spend a week in Paris. Blunt stole many of her scenes as one of Meryl Streep’s tormented underlings in The Devil Wears Prada. Here, her character falls for high school hunk Trey (Kevin Zegers) so she spends much of the film debating whether or not she should sleep with him. As she says to Bernadette, Trey “looks at me like he’s the spoon and I’m a dish of ice cream.” While her character can be annoyingly prissy, her presence emphasizes how “Book Club” resembles French cinema in the way it develops erotic energy through sheer talk.

As the divorcee Bernadette, Kathy Baker cheerfully presides over the group, claiming that Austen supplies the proper “antidote” to life. While Bernadette tries to keep the group exclusively female, Jocelyn invites young Grigg (Hugh Dancy) to join them. Grigg has the bedroom eyes and beard stubble to make a good romantic lead, but he desires Jocelyn who, in turn, wants him to take out Sylvia. When he does invite Sylvia to lunch, Jocelyn can’t understand why she’s suddenly jealous, a plot twist much in the tradition of Austen’s Emma.

Crudely summarized like this, the film may look trite, for sure, but I liked the way the various women discussed men as if they were blundering bears largely unconscious of the subtleties of human interactions. In their monthly book club meetings, the gang discuss the novels, but much of what they say ironically reflects back on their romantic preoccupations and frustrations, adding layers of meaning to the dialogue. At one point Grigg says that they are treating Austen’s works as a “rule book” for life, and Bernadette replies that she’s seen worse. The film has its sentimental moments and its plot strands resolved in convenient ways, but it also celebrates novel-reading as an escape and a solace from modern mechanized life. In the context of most recent American cinema, that seems radical enough.

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