Best-selling chick-lit novel. Jane Austen tie-in. Big screen adaptation. Perhaps the first time these ingredients were juggled with any amount of aplomb, Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones was tripping after her very own Mr. Darcy for a smashing-good box-office finish. With Austen fervor still simmering at the cinema on the heels of the more recent Becoming Jane, writer/director Robin Swicord tests the recipe again with The Jane Austen Book Club.
In the film, based on the eponymous Karen Joy Fowler novel, six group members regularly assemble to glean wisdom from Austen’s works while individually embroiled in conflicts of their own. Amy Brenneman’s Sylvia, for example, reels from losing her husband of 25 years to another woman, while newlywed Prudie (played by The Devil Wears Prada scene-stealer Emily Blunt) contemplates an affair with one of her students. Kathy Baker, Maria Bello, Maggie Grace, and Hugh Dancy (one letter removed from Darcy, I might note) complete the club.
While the novel itself didn’t exactly draw clear parallels between the plights of Austen and Fowler’s characters, the movie tries harder to forge the comparisons. “Oh, Jocelyn’s such an Emma, isn’t she?” Baker’s Bernadette quips in one scene in order to drive the point home, “`She’d` love to pair up the whole world, from dogs to people.” Jocelyn (Bello), who breeds Rhodesian Ridgebacks, attempts to steer the only male club-member, Grigg, toward Sylvia while Grigg dutifully steers his own way back toward the obliviously cool Jocelyn. Their situation bears enough of a similarity, like a slurred copy of a copy, to make one long instead for the actual Emma and Mr. Knightly.
Blunt’s performance once again super-charges a cast best described as tolerably sufficient. In one step over her disheveled and disoriented mother, played with equal vividness by Lynn Redgrave, Blunt already conveys what she’s about to say, “You’re going to put your things in your suitcase, and you’re going to leave.” It’s not a moment we can imagine in the life of an Austen heroine, and it’s within these contrasts that Book Club’s plot grows in complexity and interest. Such scenes in a film interweaving six characters with six stories, though, are sadly too few.
If a contemporary nod to Austen is what you’re after, Amy Heckerling’s Clueless better appropriated Austen’s life-lessons amidst societal strictures to the modern-day (if slightly skewed) setting of high-school cliques. Somehow extending the parallel to realistic suburban adulthood produces markedly syrupy results rather than striking something like Fielding’s or Heckerling’s more deliciously satirical chords. And if nothing short of a full-blown Austen-esque plot will suffice, perhaps crack open Pride and Prejudice instead. •
The Jane Austen Book Club
Dir. Robin Swicord, writ. Robin Swicord, Karen Joy Fowler (novel); Maria Bello, Emily Blunt, Kathy Baker, Amy Brenneman, Hugh Dancy, Maggie Grace (PG-13)