Saturday, October 6, 2007

'Austen Book Club' disappoints

The Virginian-Pilot

© October 6, 2007

You're invited to attend a book club meeting in which five women whine and complain about how badly they've been treated by men. That's about the level of the somewhat disappointing "The Jane Austen Book Club."

We expected more. For one thing, it is based on the 2004 best-selling novel by Karen Joy Fowler. For another, Sony Pictures Classics, the releasing company, can usually be depended upon for above-average, somewhat literary movies.

We celebrate any film that has such great respect for the written word, but the characters in this book club seem to have particularly ordinary and cliched lives. A husband (Jimmy Smits) leaves his wife (Amy Brenneman) for another woman. The wife goes into trauma while he is noticeably regretful about the whole thing. Even in the first scene, we have an idea that they'll probably get back together.

A prissy, uptight high school French teacher (Emily Blunt) is upset that her insensitive husband has called off their trip to Paris just because he has a business meeting. She has her eyes, reluctantly and blushingly, set on a little teen stud muffin (Kevin Zegers) who is one of her students. But she's fighting the urge. We lose interest in this subplot before they do.

An older woman (Kathy Baker), married five times and still jolly about it all, proposes a Jane Austen book club for the girls to get together and discuss the author's plottings about love and such. They are joined by a rich but lonely guy who wears tight bike shorts (Britisher Hugh Dancy, who stole what there was to steal of the underrated "Evening"). There is considerable speculation given about which woman he'll end up with. Each member is assigned a different Austen novel as a special ty when they meet in what amounts to, even though they won't admit it, an attempt to relate Austen's plots to their own lives.

This is a chick flick supreme, although I had sworn not to use that term again because several women told me it is tasteless and derogatory and if I did it again they would beat me to death with their bras. But, dang it all, there's no other way to describe "The Jane Austen Book Club."

The trouble is that nothing much happens to these women. Maria Bello, who was so good in "A History of Violence," is added to the mix as a dog breeder who is such a control freak that she has no time for her own life.

There is, however, one hilarious performance that makes it all, almost, worth watching. That is the very droll and pretentious creation of actress Blunt as the French teacher - occasionally blurting out lines in French and always diminishing the others' supposed lack of literary knowledge of Austen. Blunt stole every scene she had as the secretary in "The Devil Wears Prada," and she does it again here as an uptight, superior phony who has to put up with a macho husband. She's a light in the darkness. We can't wait to see Blunt in other movies - elevated, we hope, to star status.

Lynn Redgrave has a brief bit as the over-the-top hippie mother of Blunt's character. She chews up the scenery and is promptly ordered to get out. (Fine. The movie needs some color, but not badly enough for us to put up with this character.)

Robin Swicord, heretofore a writer of such movie adaptations as "Little Women," "Matilda" and "Memories of a Geisha," makes her directorial debut here and is, still, obsessed with things literary. Those who don't know Austen well will be needlessly intimidated by the degree of detail put into the discussions. Those of us whose familiarity is centered mainly on the Austen movie versions will feel just as wanting. Movie fans may well remember the several versions of "Pride and Prejudice" as well as "Sense and Sensibility," "Emma," "Persuasion" and "Mansfield Park." Titles of the novels serve to divide the movie into "chapters," but this also serves to remind us that we don't know as much as these characters. (Actually, we aren't missing much, because efforts to compare these little subplots to the Austen novels yield only the most skimpy rewards.)

There is something encouraging, if not altogether believable, about the way these characters are obsessed by Austen's writings.

We only wish Robert Altman were still living, and making films. He was the master of creating believable, involving little moments while juggling five or 20 subplots. He could have made a classic out of "The Jane Austen Book Club." As it is, it's merely a suitable refuge for those who want to escape the violence and tastelessness in other theaters. It will take that kind of alternative to drive audiences to this "Club."

Mal Vincent, (757) 446-2347,

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