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Austen Powers 

The premise of writer/director Robin Swicord's The Jane Austen Book Club is that the wisdom of the early 19th century author bears extended relevance for contemporary readers. To set that theme in proper context, Swicord starts by capturing her characters battling the daily demons of modern life. A gas pump won't accept a credit card. A garage gate won't dispense a ticket and thus won't open. A merchandise alarm sounds even though the customer has paid for her goods. This credit sequence is funny, true and promising, but despite the excellent cast that Swicord has assembled, nothing that follows quite rises to the opening. Adapted from Karen Joy Fowler's calculating novel, The Jane Austen Book Club is the story of six people who come together to read six Austen novels, and from the narrative get-go the picture relies on contrivance that challenges our suspension of disbelief. Jocelyn (Maria Bello) is a dog breeder whose interest in romance is 'scientific" rather than personal. She's had lovers, but has no need of a regular man in her life. Her friend Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) has presumed her long marriage to Daniel (Jimmy Smits) is happy, so she's shocked when he leaves her for a woman at his office. Sylvia's lesbian daughter Allegra (Maggie Grace) has girlfriend troubles of her own. So when Jocelyn's beloved dog dies, mutual friend Bernadette (Kathy Baker) " she of six divorces " decides that the four distraught women ought to gather together for a good read. And returning to Jane Austen is a decidedly superior activity to tequila shooters and post-midnight dates at the corner bar.

Then Bernadette meets Prudie (Emily Blunt), a depressed high school French teacher with an insensitive husband, and includes her in the group. Jocelyn meets Grigg (Hugh Dancy), and for reasons forever mysterious, thinks he'd be a good mate for Sylvia. So now the club has six members, and however improbable the inclusion of the last two may seem, their addition yields a perfect number since Jane Austen wrote six novels. Each club member can do a little research, rustle up some snacks, host a gathering and lead one book's discussion. Cut to lots of shots of people turning pages and later chit-chatting about the dilemmas and ambitions of characters only those of us who have also read the books will recognize.

Obviously, Austen fans will get more out of this movie than will those ignorant of her works. For instance, Jocelyn the matchmaker, who is almost stubbornly blind to the romance right in front of her, is a reference to Austen's Emma Woodhouse. But Swicord is too savvy a filmmaker to restrict her audience to Austenophiles alone, and all can grasp the character developments even when they can't make the literary connections. As the club members make their way through the books, Swicord chronicles the complications in the readers' private lives as they gradually unknot themselves for the requisite series of happy endings.

Two of these entanglements have a bit of grip. We realize before the characters do that Grigg and Jocelyn are meant for each other. We never discover the reasons Jocelyn is so hardened to romantic enticement, but Grigg's earnestness, patience, sense and sensibility are convincing as the traits that can ultimately win her heart. Better yet is the second-thought, second-chance story of Sylvia and Daniel. Since he's a cheater who walks out on a wife of three decades, we haven't a lot of immediate sympathy for Daniel. But even in the beginning he seems a tormented man trying through stubbornness to make the best of his bad judgment. If this can be true, we're supposed to see him as a thoughtful betrayer. Ultimately the picture emphasizes his regret and credits the wisdom as well as the self-interest in Sylvia's forgiveness.

Both Sylvia's and Jocelyn's stories could have used expansion, however. Instead we get snippets of Allegra's search for the right partner and Prudie's almost painful wooing of her own callous husband, Dean (Mark Blucas), whose transformation is only less unconvincing than Bernadette's last-minute involvement with a character who seems to drop in from a movie being shot in the studio next door. On the whole, then, the picture is both a mishmash and a trifle. Jane Austen's characters have endured two centuries, but those in the Book Club won't last two months.

click to enlarge The plot thickens as Jocelyn (Maria Bello) the dog breeder sniffs the right pediree in Grigg (Hugh Dancy). - 2007 SONY PICTURES CLASSICS
  • 2007 Sony Pictures Classics
  • The plot thickens as Jocelyn (Maria Bello) the dog breeder sniffs the right pediree in Grigg (Hugh Dancy).
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