“The Jane Austen Book Club” a repetitive, formulaic bore

By By Danny Letz

By Danny Letz

“The Jane Austen Book Club”Sony Pictures ClassicsWritten and directed by Robin Swicord, based on the book by Karen Joy FowlerStarring Maria Bello, Jimmy Smits, Emily Blunt, Kathy Baker, Amy Brenneman, Maggie Grace, Hugh Dancy, Kevin Zegers and Lynn RedgraveRated PG-13/105 minutesTwo out of four stars

There are few names that carry as much gender-specific baggage as Jane Austen’s.

Despite anyone’s take on Austen’s actual body of work, the subject is inevitably tainted by one’s perspective on men, women and the relationship between the two (with Austen’s feminine-centric novels regarded as the embodiment of feminine sensibilities). Thus, it seems apropos given Austen’s standing as one of THE original feminists, that her work be the subject of the silver-screen-feminine-bonding-movie — aka the “chick flick.”

Unfortunately, despite its attempts, “The Jane Austen Book Club” does little justice to the Austen books it addresses.

Based itself on the novel of the same name, “The Jane Austen Book Club” spans the lives of five women and one man who gather for six months to discuss six separate Austen novels.

The film opens with tragedy: Jocelyn’s (Maria Bello) nearest and dearest hound has recently passed away. Jocelyn, herself an avid loner-matchmaker (read: Emma counterpart), takes the loss to heart. Only tragedy is quick to strike again as Sylvia’s (Amy Brenneman) husband (Jimmy Smits) leaves her for another woman. Quick to set her friend on the path to recovery, Jocelyn enlists the help of friend Bernadette (Kathy Baker) in creating a book club. The remaining characters come together to form the club with more ease than in a Dickens novel.

As the film progresses, it quickly becomes apparent that not only will Austen’s books bring these five women and one man together on an emotional level, but her texts will also single-handedly save all of their lives from the point of collapse.

How to save a marriage? Read Austen!

How to win back a spouse? Read Austen!

How to perform cardiac surgery? Read Austen! (OK?maybe not).

What remains is a formulaic, repetitive set of book club meetings, wherein each of the separate members manages to read each of the separate novels in such a way as to re-interpret the events and characters on a personal scale.

Examples:

Sensitive guy: We’re misinterpreting the actions of the sensitive Mr. Darcy, he only wants to win over the stubborn woman of his dreams through his sensitive actions.

Stubborn woman: Wrong again! Her stubbornness is only explicit because she wants to be truly loved. You misread the stubborn woman, she doesn’t love sensitive men!

Sensitive guy: You’re lying!

Divorced woman: I’m surprised Mr. Bennett doesn’t leave his wife for a younger woman! Men are dogs! All husbands cheat!

French teacher (snobbish tone): Non! Elizabeth veut clairement une omelette de fromage!

Repeat six times, with minor variations (and by minor I mean the French teacher occasionally refrains from lapses into French).

The characters are not given the opportunity to develop beyond the point of caricatures (there’s the loner, the divorce, the endearing male, the prudish French teacher — named, of all things, Prudie — the attractive, full of life daughter and the magical bag-lady mystic). The male supporting characters are even less realized (Jimmy Smits’ bumbling, ignorant husband is nearly as poorly executed as Marc Blucas’ dinosaur of a husband). All characters fill their stereotypical roles to a tee without ever fully challenging their characters’ boundaries. The closest attempt at development comes from Dancy’s bicycle toting, shy-if-not-overbearingly-endearing male, whose perpetual forays into and explanations of his love for science fiction books offer a glimpse, if slight, into some character depth.

Sadly, however, even this is quickly worn thin.

Director Robin Swicord is at home in adaptations of feminine centric books (“Memoirs of a Geisha,” “Matilda” and “Little Women”), only this time around she fails to gain any true momentum or any actual basis within which to ground the characters and the plot lines. Everything within the film seems fleeting, whether it be the plot, character motivation, etc. The only structure comes from the six monthly book club meetings, and rather than ground the piece, these only serve to add to its already blas, repetitive nature.

All in all, likely a good venture for those who like their Austen misinterpreted, and served on repeat for more than an hour at a time.

Otherwise, you might enjoy reading the actual texts…and misinterpreting them for yourself.

[email protected]