Okay, so filmmakers have adapted all of Jane Austen’s novels for the screen, many of them multiple times. And recently (in “Becoming Jane”) they’ve turned Jane Austen’s life into a “Pride and Prejudice”-like take. What’s next? Why, make a movie about people who read Jane Austen’s books, of course! Here’s the result: an ensemble dramedy of manners that wrongly thinks it’s clever and insightful, and will curdle the blood of all but the most soft-hearted viewers. Guys will be most seriously affected, but most women will find the pandering, condescending “Jane Austen Book Club” intolerable, too.
Writer-director Robin Swicord’s picture, based on a book by Karen Joy Fowler, brings together a bunch of characters who get together periodically to talk about old Jane’s output. The mother-hen of the group is the much-divorced Bernadette (Kathy Baker), who organizes the participants—single Jocelyn (Maria Bello), a dog breeder more at home with her animals than with people; Sylvia (Amy Brenneman), who’s down in the dumps after being left by her husband Daniel (Jimmy Smits) for a female colleague; Sylvia’s risk-taking lesbian daughter Allegra (Maggie Grace); the aptly-named high school French teacher Prudie (Emily Blunt), who’s grown dissatisfied with her sports-minded hubby Dean (Marc Blucas) and attracted to Trey (Kevin Zegers), a well-endowed, and sensitive, student; and one guy, Grigg (Hugh Dancy), an eager young retired software mogul. And there are other characters, including Sky (Lynn Redgrave), Prudie’s wild ex-hippie mom and Corinne (Parisa Fitz-Henley), Allegra’s significant other.
It would be even more tedious to catalogue the ways in which these guys and girls interact than it is to watch them doing so. Suffice it to say that the story is divided into “chapters” recording the month and book up for discussion in it—which only encourages you to try to estimate how much longer you have to suffer by remembering, as the story drones on, exactly how many novels Austen wrote. The idea is that though her books are nearly two centuries old, they still speak to their readers about the human condition with as much immediacy today as when they were written. That’s actually true, but one would never be convinced of it by the forced combination of melodrama, romance and comedy Fowler and Swicord have concocted; the pat ending is especially laughable. Jane Austen wrote wonderful novels. She must be whirling in her grave to think that her name is being misused to sell such feeble-minded fluff as this.
Still, it must be said that the cast does what they can to put over the lame material. Redgrave is over the top and Baker runs her a close second, but most of the others manage at least a modicum of restraint. Technically the picture is just average, looking a bit frayed and visually bland. But the script doesn’t deserve exceptional execution.
You’d be better advised to read any of Austen’s novels on your own—or to re-watch “Persuasion,” the best of the screen adaptations—than to join the sappy, soap-operatic “Book Club” named after her.