“The Jane Austen Book Club” is not just a chick flick. Sure, the film’s protagonists are five equally complicated and Jane Austen-obsessed females, but a charming cast and intelligent dialogue distinguishes this film from other boorishly generic romantic comedies.
The film, directed by Robin Swicord, begins with a delightful sequence presenting our characters experiencing a wide array of modern (wo)man’s everyday troubles. An ATM card refuses to work, cars steal parking spots, hot coffee spills itself all over a light blue shirt. Such a demonstration of everyday accidents and roadblocks depicts how the only things punctuating such commonly irritating experiences are times of momentous joy and intense tragedy. Of course, the moral of this film (summed up by the mantra, WWJD — “What would Jane do?”) is that a Jane Austen novel can almost always relieve life’s maladies.
Kathy Baker plays Bernadette, a six-time divorcee who decides a Jane Austen book club is what her friends need to get through hard times. Such hard times have befallen never-been-married Jocelyn (Maria Bello) who mourns the loss of her dog, while Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) mourns the loss of her husband to another woman. After meeting a high school French teacher named Trudie while in line for a movie, Bernadette proffers her the book club idea. As it turns out, Trudie (played by the always dazzling Emily Blunt) is a die-hard Jane fan and eagerly accepts.
Sylvia’s fiery and somewhat-impulsive lesbian daughter, Allegra (an interestingly cast Maggie Grace), makes the group five. In the spirit of honoring each of Austen’s six novels, Jocelyn invites impossibly handsome but nerdy Grigg (Hugh Dancy) in hopes of setting him up with Sylvia. However, just as in Austen’s novels, matches like this never go quite according to plan.
Needless to say, the rest of the film involves the club’s ups and downs as they gather every month for some much-needed Austen therapy. Each woman shadows one of Austen’s protagonists as the books they read parallel their lives in some fashion. For example, Trudie is quiet, yet practical, like Anne Elliot in “Persuasion,” and makes choices similar choices regarding love and marriage.
Blunt shines as a wife stuck to a man with whom she has virtually nothing in common. As the reluctant daughter of a hippie, Trudie seeks as much order in her life as possible. However, her hard exterior shatters with the possibility of a torrid affair with one of her high school students. Despite this contrived plot line, Blunt successfully delivers a subtle and reserved performance, revealing the way the book club — both the novels and the women — change her throughout the film.
Hugh Dancy also adds a sympathetic and earnest tone to the movie. While it could have been easy for such an estrogen-driven film to succumb to the common pitfall of man-bashing, Dancy’s science fiction-loving character is nothing but openly honest and eager to please.
While many of the individual’s performances shine, the film never goes as far as to break boundaries. The plot lines are charming, but always predictable, and some of the film’s moments seem dangerously shallow. Real life does not always turn out the way we expect and is usually far removed from the tidiness of a Jane Austen novel. That said, most women would probably welcome a little Mr. Darcy in their lives.