The Jane Austen Book Club

2007, Movie, PG-13, 106 mins


Based on Karen Joy Fowler's 2004 best-seller about five women and one man who plumb their souls and polish up their love lives while reading Austen's novels, screenwriter Robin Swicord's directing debut is the very definition of the term "chick flick." But fine performances and smooth direction whip it into the cream of a frothy genre, a light diversion that touches on dark topics without trivializing them and never insults the viewer's intelligence.

Set in Sacramento, California, it begins as Jocelyn (Maria Bello) and Sylvia (Amy Brenneman), best friends since childhood, absorb a pair of devastating emotional wallops in rapid succession. Jocelyn, who gave up on romance in favor of breeding Rhodesian ridgebacks, buries her favorite dog, and Sylvia loses her husband of more than 20 years (Jimmy Smits) to a midlife-crisis romance. Longtime pal Bernadette (Kathy Baker), the gregarious, eternally optimistic veteran of six marriages, casts about for a project to occupy their minds and finds it in a movie-line conversation with tearful Prudie (Emily Blunt). A buttoned-up high-school French teacher and the perpetually resentful child of a defiantly irresponsible hippie mom (Lynn Redgrave), Prudie is rethinking her marriage to guy's-guy Dean (Marc Blucas), who just casually canceled the Parisian trip of Prudie's dreams for a business jaunt. Prudie finds the refuge of Austen's world of rules and order all but irresistible, and Sylvia's outgoing daughter, Allegra (Maggie Grace), high on the first flush of love with a new girlfriend (Parisa Fitz-Henley), agrees to join as well, if only for the sake of being emotionally supportive. Now all they need is a sixth member — six novels, six readers — to which end Jocelyn delivers puppyish Grigg (Hugh Dancy), a software millionaire whose deep reading goes no further than classic sci-fi. She thinks he'd make a fine rebound romance for Sylvia, despite the fact that he's actually more interested in her, something everyone but Jocelyn sees immediately.

With Austen's novels as a buffer, the readers hash over their romantic travails — Austen's insights into the complex interplay between men and women can, after all, be read through the prism of virtually any time, place or circumstance — and gently guide each other to a common conclusion: Love is complicated, frustrating and sometimes heartbreaking, but it beats surrender to bitterness and despair. A truism, to be sure, but neither trite nor pandering, and that's what makes the film better than most of its peers. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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