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'Austen Book Club' is a page turner

Robin Swicord's first feature, with Maria Bello and Emily Blunt, is a clever look at modern life and love.

September 21, 2007|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

The notion of Jane Austen as palliative for all that ails you reaches its warm and cuddly apotheosis in "The Jane Austen Book Club," adapted from the novel by Karen Joy Fowler. Capably, if not exactly artfully directed by longtime screenwriter, first-time feature director Robin Swicord, "Book Club" is a widget carefully engineered to comfort, console and sell like hot cakes since it was but a gleam in the author's eye, and Swicord doesn't mess with the formula.

When Jocelyn (Maria Bello) loses her beloved dog to the great beyond and Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) loses her beloved husband to a woman from the office in the same week, their friend Bernadette (Kathy Baker) decides what they need is a six-pack of Jane and some company. Standing in line at the movies she meets a dedicated Austen fan named Prudie (the excellent Emily Blunt), a depressed French teacher unhappy in her marriage, and invites her to join too. Meanwhile, Jocelyn meets a handsome young geek at a convention and invites him to join -- for Sylvia, of course. She's a matchmaker. Rounding out the group is Sylvia's daughter Allegra (Maggie Grace), an impulsive and heedlessly romantic young lesbian.

All of them, needless to say, find themselves in various states of grief, crisis, confusion or denial. And all of them mirror an Austen heroine of their own. (Prudie is Fanny, Jocelyn is Emma, Allegra is Marianne, and so on.)

The movie is divided into six sections centering on one of the novels and the attendant discussion/parallel universe situation being experienced by the discussion leader. As the themes in the books stir up the problems in their lives, things start to get volatile.

Hugh Dancy is charming as the odd-man-out Grigg, a science-fiction lover who joins the group to be close to Jocelyn (who keeps pushing him on Sylvia). Naturally, he gets the lemon, "Northanger Abbey" (no hate mail, please), but makes lemonade by turning his horrible McMansion in neo-suburbia into a haunted house for the club meeting.

The movie's best sequence is its opening, in which Swicord depicts modern life as a funny, remarkably well-observed symphony of small annoyances only occasionally punctuated by tragedy or joy. Between those, there's traffic, listening to other people's cellphone calls, lost parking tickets, card-swipe machines that can't read your card, robotic voices programmed to sound sympathetic, leaf blowers, spilling coffee on yourself in the car, yanking the laptop to the floor by the power chord when you get up to go to the bathroom and then dropping the phone into the toilet. This is genius. Also nice is seeing a movie so alive to the pleasures of reading and writing and sharing books, especially when the love feels sincere.

With its multiple protagonists and episodic structure, "The Jane Austen Book Club" probably lost plenty in the translation to film and, in parts, the story feels awkwardly truncated or too shallow to matter. But Swicord has a playful sense of humor and a good ear for dialogue, and the movie pleasantly accomplishes what it set out to accomplish. "It's a perfect antidote to life," is how Bernadette somewhat outrageously characterizes poor, dead Jane's six near-perfect novels. But an antidote to life is exactly what the "Jane Austen Book Club" is proud to be, which is great, I guess, if you're allergic to life.


"The Jane Austen Book Club." MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material, sexual content, brief strong language and some drug use. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes. In general release.

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