Janey, we hardly knew ye
The Jane Austen Book Club
Robin Swicord’s film version of The Jane Austen Book Club will probably amuse and divert the female, 20-something audience at which it’s so clearly aimed, and why not? It features attractive people doing attractive things in generally attractive places. Those hypothetical viewers may wish to nudge this review’s popcorn rating up a step. Only admirers of Karen Joy Fowler’s book will notice how Swicord has transformed this gentle, sweetly perceptive novel into a Hollywood-glossy, feather-brained chick flick; they may want to knock the rating down one.
The eponymous club is a group of five women and one man who meet monthly to discuss Jane Austen’s six novels. Fowler’s book delves into the characters’ histories, as well as the changes they go through during the half-year of their meetings. In Swicord’s film, however, the history is pretty much jettisoned, mainly because Swicord has shaved so much off the characters’ ages that they can’t have much history to speak of. The central characters, Jocelyn and Sylvia, lifelong friends now well into their 50s, might have suited, say, Glenn Close and Meryl Streep, but Swicord has cast Maria Bello and Amy Breneman—fine performers, welcome faces, but both in their 40s and looking much younger. As the disheveled, 67-year-old Bernadette, a role that cries for Ellen Burstyn or Shirley Knight, we get Kathy Baker, who could easily have played either Jocelyn or Sylvia.
And so it goes on down the line. Forty-plus Grigg, the club’s token male and a science-fiction buff taking his first plunge into Austenland, becomes 32-and-looking-24 Hugh Dancy. Sylvia’s 30-plus lesbian daughter, Allegra, gets her age knocked down to 19, where she’s played by Maggie Grace. Only Emily Blunt as Prudie is more or less the right age—but the timorous, aptly-named Prudie is supposed to be the youngest of the group, and in the movie she falls somewhere in the middle. Swicord tampers with Prudie’s character in other ways, giving her a forbidden-fruit flirtation with a high-school boy that never leaves the back of book—Prudie’s mind, and making Prudie’s devoted husband Dean (Marc Blucas) into a sports-bar oaf.
These changes may make sense in terms of audience demographics, but they are not trivial, and they betray a dramatic tin ear in the usually reliable Swicord (directing her first feature after doing such fine scripts as Memoirs of a Geisha, Little Women and Matilda). Allegra’s daredevil antics and romantic plight play differently when performed by a teenager than they do with a grown woman. Grigg’s sci-fi fixation also plays differently in his 40s—for one thing, it’s more believable that he would have read and admired Ursula K. Le Guin and Joanna Russ (Swicord seems to assume that her audience hasn’t read either—and probably not even Austen, for that matter). When Bernadette says that one of her many ex-husbands produced Fred Astaire musicals, we think, “Wait a minute—Astaire’s last musical was in 1968, and before that 1957; did you marry this guy when you were twelve?” Fowler’s novel has the plangent ring of truth; Swicord’s film does not.
What it does have is an eye-pleasing Hollywood shine. But even that is out of place in a movie supposedly set in Sacramento and Davis but shot in various locations around Southern California. You don’t need to have lived in Long Beach to know that Sacramento has no store called Acres of Books (though you may need to have lived there to know that Acres of Books has never looked so clean and dust-free, or been so dazzlingly well-lit). And, I suspect, you don’t need to live in Sacramento to sense that this movie isn’t taking place where it says it is, or that these pretty, likeable people are only pretending to be what the script says they are.
The missing dust and gloom of Acres of Books is emblematic of the missing dimensions in the characters and story of Robin Swicord’s take on The Jane Austen Book Club. Fowler’s book aspires to the benign understanding of Austen herself, and achieves it. Swicord aspires only to the pretty gloss of a Nancy Myers movie like Father of the Bride or The Holiday. A target that close (and that low) isn’t much to brag about, even if you hit the bull’s-eye.