You have the sense and sensibility that it could have been more penetrating than it is.

James Plath's picture

Austen powers?

There's a famous scene in "When Harry Met Sally" where Meg Ryan's character reveals that women commonly fake orgasms. She demonstrates it rather convincingly right there in the restaurant, so I suppose it's possible for a man to fake being enthralled with a book written by a woman in the first decade of the 1800s. What doesn't seem possible is that a man initially resistant to the notion would become so ga-ga over Jane Austen that he seems about to have an orgasm himself.

I'm a sensitive kind of guy who enjoys so-called "chick flicks" as much as any woman, but this one didn't do enough for me. Everything seemed a little too pat and manufactured, like overprocessed music. Then again, my wife also thought "The Jane Austen Book Club" was a little on the slick-and-syrupy side: a passably decent film, but not one to get too excited about.

I haven't read the novel by Karen Joy Fowler which inspired this film, but since director Robin Swicord also wrote the screenplay, I'm assuming that she zeroed in on the novel's basics. I just don't think that she delivers a film that's viscerally honest. An overly processed, corny veneer and underdeveloped scenarios mar what could have been a really interesting film. And after all, the premise is certainly fascinating.

One of the bonus features walks us through it--how each character who takes part in this informal book discussion group is evocative of a different character from one of Austen's six novels:

Bernadette (Kathy Baker) is the group's oldest member and the biggest Austen fan. She's been married and divorced six times, and acts a bit like an Earth Mother who's been through it all and isn't afraid to speak her mind. She's the storyteller. Then there's her friend, Jocelyn (Maria Bello), a 40-something dog breeder who's never been married and matches up with Austen's Emma. Those two get the idea of starting the group, partly to take another friend's mind off her marital problems. Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) has been a wreck since learning her husband Daniel (Jimmy Smits) has been having an affair. She's Austen's Fanny Price, from Mansfield Park. Her lesbian daughter Allegra (Maggie Grace), meanwhile, evokes Austen's Marianne Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility. Then there's the aptly named Prudie (Emily Blunt), who, like Anne Eliot from Persuasion is just a little uptight and succumbs to family pressure. Prudie is a high school French teacher who's new to Austen and the notion of book clubs, and comes across as someone who thinks she's more sophisticated than anyone else. Why she's thinking of cuckolding her average-Joe husband (Marc Blucas) for a bad-boy high school student (Kevin Zegers) is anyone's guess. Rounding out the group is the lone male, Grigg (Hugh Dancy), who, we're told, represents all the misunderstood men in Jane Austen.

Kind of a neat concept, actually. But I didn't get enough of a sense of Austen's characters from this group, and there were times when "The Jane Austen Book Club" seemed flat and going through the motions. There's not much plot, and what's here seems episodic, even hurried, so that we never really feel as if we're getting to know many of these characters. We know time passes, but we don't get enough sense of the characters and their lives apart from these book-club sessions. The film's six "chapters" are named for the six novels they're reading, but even that isn't much of a cue. Though all of the performances are praiseworthy, the two most interesting storylines involve Prudie's near-dalliance with that good-looking student and Grigg and Jocelyn as the main romantic match-up. In these storylines we also feel closest to the comedies of manners that Austen put her characters through. Unfortunately, it's easy to lose sight of what works in the film when the ending is slathered with so much hard-to-swallow syrup, and Lynn Redgrave seems wasted in a very abbreviated role as Prudie's pot-smoking mom.

There's an occasional zinger of a line, but by and large "The Jane Austen Book Club" is a fairly even-keeled affair, with no real peaks and no real valleys. Tonally, the straight line it sails is in keeping with those comedies of manners. But in terms of wit and insight into male-female relationships, it's not nearly on the same level as Austen . . . or "When Harry Met Sally," for that matter.

The 1080p picture (MPEG-4 transfer, 1.85:1 aspect ratio) looks a little light on the black levels to me, especially in exterior scenes that throw a little atmospheric confusion into the lighting mix. There's also a little "nervousness" in those instances. Color is about what Sony gave viewers with "Hitch"--a natural-looking but not terribly saturated picture. The detail also didn't pop out with the kind of 3-dimensionality you get with some of the better Blu-ray transfers.

The featured soundtrack is an English Dolby TrueHD 5.1, which certainly seems sufficient given that almost all of the film (with the exception of the background music) is talk. But the sound editing seemed a bit off, with the dialogue competing with the music on several occasions. Rear speakers had little to do here, but as I said, it's almost all talk. Unless people are talking behind our backs, what use are the FX speakers? Additional soundtrack options are French Dolby TrueHD 5.1, and Portuguese, Spanish, and Thai Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English, English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Thai, and Korean.

The best bonus feature, without a doubt, was "The Book Club Deconstructed," which I recommend watching before you turn on the movie. In it, you'll get a sense of the heady business at hand, which is nice because unless you're fully acquainted with Austen you might not pick up on the fact that the book club members are behaving like characters. I also recommend watching "The Life of Jane Austen" before the film. It's a nice, condensed bio-overview that nicely sets the stage and features a number of talking heads from the Austen world.

A "Behind the Scenes" featurette has a few interesting moments, including that this group had only 30 days to shoot an ambitious movie. One of the most fun segments has Blucas telling about his audition and describing how as he walked away from it the director and assistant came literally running after him. Red carpet watchers will enjoy the L.A. premiere, but it's all photo-op stuff, for the most part.

Finally, the cast and crew commentary is worth listening to. It features Swicord with her editor Maryann Brandon, producer Julie Lynn, and stars Dancy and Grace. It's quite the lively track, with zero dead air and plenty of overlapping dialogue. In fact, this commentary is one of those that will have you appreciating the film more than you do at first watching.

Bottom Line:
"The Jane Austen Book Club" is a by-the-numbers (or rather, by-the-characters) film that's entertaining but ultimately disappointing, because you have the sense and sensibility that it could have been more penetrating than it is.


Film Value