Quirky cast makes Austen more than just your typical romantic comedy
Writer-director Robin Swicord’s adaptation of the best-selling novel by Karen Jay Fowler is smart, lively entertainment that defies easy categorization.
A frisky comedy-drama, a relationship movie with a breezy sort of literary inclination, a multi-character romantic comedy, a feelgood domestic drama, a celebration of the novels of Jane Austen and their relevance for readers in the 21st century—The Jane Austen Book Club is all of those things at one point or another, but too full of flitting comic life to ever settle completely into any single one of them. Most of it percolates somewhere between literate comic wit and TV-sitcom slickness—and much closer to the former than the latter, most of the time.
The main characters are brought together in a small ad hoc book group that meets once a month to discuss the novels of Jane Austen. The film’s action mirrors, and echoes, various aspects of Austen’s work in various ways. But that matters less than what the characters reveal about their own emotional travails via their remarks on whichever of the Austen classics they’re reading at the moment.
Bernadette (Kathy Baker), a six-time divorcée with a worldly sense of humor, sets the group in motion, initially with the aim of consoling her long-unmarried friend Jocelyn (Maria Bello), a high-strung sort who has just staged a full funeral for her recently deceased pedigreed dog. Mutual friend Sylvia (Amy Brenneman), whose marriage to Daniel (Jimmy Smits) has collapsed, is pulled in on similar terms, along with her amiably rebellious daughter Allegra (Maggie Grace), a dark-humored lesbian with a taste for Xtreme sports.
With Bernadette taking the young, fiercely intellectual, and unhappily married Prudie (Emily Blunt) under her wing, the potential for sob-sister therapy sessions briefly grows ominous. But Book Club is too sprightly and sardonic for that to prove fatal. And once Jocelyn brings the charming, handsome sci-fi nerd Grigg (Hugh Dancy) into the group, ostensibly as boy-toy consolation for Sylvia, the modestly unpredictable charms of this shrewd little comedy and character study are fully in play.
Even with some final plot twists that seem a bit forced and unearned (not to mention a boy-toy problem of another sort for Blunt’s Prudie), Swicord’s movie brings a good deal of fresh life to the conventions of romantic comedy. The fine ensemble work of an agreeably quirky cast contributes nicely to the spirit of offbeat adventurousness in the key characterizations, with Baker, Brenneman and Dancy doing particularly sharp and effective work.
But the real revelations here are Bello and Blunt, both of whom show ranges of sympathy and insight with characters who are by no means typical in contemporary American movies. And Swicord, a quietly successful screenwriter making her directorial debut, gets good work out of everybody, including offbeat cameos with Nancy Travis, Gwendoline Yeo, and the formidable Lynn Redgrave.