Movie review: ‘Jane Austen Book Club’ is a chick flick even Austen would shun

Clara Long

All narrative strings tie together a little too neatly in this literary chick-flick’s saccharine portrayal of six Californians dealing with friendship, heartbreak, romance and love.

“Jane Austen Book Club” misses the mark almost from the opening sequence, when the camera pans down into the urban rat-race of Sacramento: traffic, unruly vending machines, fights over parking spots, broken ATMs and the high-pitched ever-present call of the cell phone. It’s well-shot, but somewhere in there, it becomes overblown, turning what could have been a valuable reflection on modern life into mere slapstick.

It appears we are meant to contrast the reality of the modern daily grind to the life of Jane Austen, who in her elite, bucolic existence (1775-1817) wrote six novels. Those books make up the reading list for the “All-Jane-Austen-all-the-time book club,” as Kathy Baker’s character, the six-time married but still radiant Bernadette, calls it.

“Bernie” comes up with the idea to start a book club to cheer up her friend Jocelyn (Maria Bello), who is devastated after putting on a stately funeral for “Pridey,” her champion Rhodesian Ridgeback. 

Soon, others are recruited: Jocelyn’s lifelong best friend Sylvia (Amy Brenneman), whose husband Daniel (Jimmy Smits) has just left her after 20 years of marriage for a woman at his law firm; Allegra (Maggie Grace), Sylvia and Daniel’s 20-something pretty lesbian daughter; and Prudie (Emily Blunt), a petulant young French teacher in a mismatched marriage. Last to join is Grigg (Hugh Dancy), a handsome geek drafted by Jocelyn to take Sylvia’s mind off Daniel.  Of course, he’s only got eyes for Jocelyn.

Six books, one meeting a month for six months had my companion twisting in his chair with impatience. “Only two months to go!” he said.

The obviousness of the plot development deepens as the movie unfolds. Characters use Jane Austen -- or Jane, as Prudie peevishly calls her -- to make only-so-slightly veiled statements about their lives and loves. The transparency of it all starts to show through near the end, so it’s a relief when writer/director Robin Swicord (screen adaptations of “Memoirs Of A Geisha,” “Little Women” and “The Perez Family”) finally gets around to making all the resolutions one always knew were in the offing. 

Though not sufficient to revive the stale narrative, at least the foregone conclusion is punctuated by some buoyant one-liners that provide a tickle or two.

It’s ironic that a film about the novels of a writer so focused on character development refines its protagonists so poorly. The depiction of Maria Bello’s Jocelyn is particularly ham-handed. Gorgeous and living alone on a small ranch, an apparent obsession with dogs stands in for any real exploration of what makes her tick and why she can’t seem to realize that sweet, sensitive Grigg is relentlessly pursuing her. It’s also never quite clear why we care that Allegra likes extreme sports so much.

Hollywood’s fascination with Jane Austen is longstanding: The first adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice,” starring Greer Garson as Elizabeth Bennet and Laurence Olivier as Mr. Darcy, was released in 1940, and this film is this year’s second Jane Austen-inspired movie. But its re-hash of Austen’s themes (romance, etiquette, and long-term love) will surely not recommend the novels to the unacquainted. As my companion put it, “After this movie, no guy is ever going to want to read a Jane Austen novel.”

The Patriot Ledger

THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB

PG-13 for mature thematic material, sexual content, brief strong language and some drug use. Cast includes Maria Bello, Kathy Baker, Emily Blunt, Amy Brenneman, Maggie Grace and Hugh Dancy. 1 1/2  stars.