Jane Austen's novels parallel the lives of six present-day book lovers in this lightweight romantic comedy.
Jane Austen's Brit-lit classics have become a film genre of their own, period-piece romances with lovers quarreling, reconciling and living wittily ever after.
"The Jane Austen Book Club," adapted from Karen Joy Fowler's 2004 bestseller by screenwriter and first-time director Robin Swicord ("Practical Magic"), transfers that spirit to today's hectic world of cell phones, spinning classes and supermarket parking-lot gridlock. It's "Sense and Sensibility" meets "Sex and the City."
The film opens at a funeral, but quickly establishes its sly tone by revealing that the dear departed is a doggie, one of the loyal, controllable pack that breeder Jocelyn (Maria Bello) prefers to unreliable, headstrong men.
When several of her female buddies form a reading circle with a course in Austen to soothe their way through various crises and upheavals, the stage is set for a series of life lessons paralleling the novels' plots. The operative word here is cozy, as the ladies wrap themselves in shawls, loll about on sunny porches and share their feelings over wine or lattés.
Kathy Baker plays Bernadette, the oldest, a carefree, wealthy multiple divorcée who's game for another shot at love. Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) thinks she's in a secure marriage until her husband, Daniel, abruptly informs her otherwise; in a funny scene afterward they work out who gets custody of their favorite grocery store.
Their postgraduate daughter Allegra (Maggie Grace) is having relationship troubles with her latest girlfriend -- this is a very contemporary comedy of manners. Joining them are Prudie (Emily Blunt, who almost stole the show as Meryl Streep's senior assistant in "The Devil Wears Prada" and scores again here), a schoolteacher trapped in a tepid marriage and fighting her attraction to an underage student. The last to join is Grigg (Hugh Dancy), a handsome computer nerd hoping to broaden his horizons by reading something other than science fiction.
Austen aficionados will have fun playing Spot the Fanny (or Emma or Marianne). The similarities between the characters' romantic dilemmas and those of Austen's folk are painstakingly underlined as the book clubbers discuss "Pride and Prejudice" and the rest: In one weird aside, a traffic light flashes the message "What Would Jane Do?"
It's all too clear that characters who loathe each other at first sight will end up blissfully united, but the film has an undeniable, easygoing charm. Real life is seldom so pleasingly plotted, but then real life is what people go to movies like this to get away from.
Colin Covert 612-673-7186
Colin Covert firstname.lastname@example.org