The Jane Austen Book Club

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In a frenetic montage detailing the way technology makes us feel testy and out of control, writer-director Robin Swicord quickly establishes that her film takes place in the modern world. So how should you deal with feeling constantly overwhelmed by everyday minutiae? Instead of going freegan, Swicord suggests a good dose of Jane Austen to cleanse the palate and savor life anew.

The Jane Austen Book Club falls squarely into the category of the chick flick. Although this label is rather dismissive, what it denotes is an optimistic worldview in which change, no matter how painful, will lead to growth and deeper happiness. And that relentless positivism infuses Book Club, which follows a half-dozen Sacramento, Calif., folks during the six months they meet to dissect Jane Austen's six novels.

After six marriages, Bernadette (Kathy Baker) has decided to "let herself go," and becomes a nurturing mother hen to her troubled friends. They include the never-married, self-contained dog breeder Jocelyn (Maria Bello), whose best friend, stalwart librarian Sylvia (Amy Brenneman), is unhinged by her husband's sudden departure. This prompts Sylvia's lesbian daughter, Allegra (Maggie Grace), an accident-prone thrill-seeker, to move home.

Two outsiders join (and enliven) this closely-knit group: tightly-wound, pretentious French teacher Prudie (Emily Blunt), who's contemplating infidelity, and sweet-natured, science fiction-reading techie Grigg (Hugh Dancy), whose love of women becomes specific.

When Swicord adapted Karen Joy Fowler's popular 2004 book, she made most of the characters younger by a decade, and altered the structure. Fowler's book reads like a series of novellas: each section explores a character's background and draws parallels to the Austen book they're in charge of discussing.

A screenwriter (Little Women, Memoirs of a Geisha) making her directorial debut, Swicord opts for more conventional storytelling, interweaving the various plotlines so that the characters' personalities are primarily revealed in relation to each other and through their book club debates.

There's a comfortable inevitability to the proceedings — enough pithy language and tidy resolutions to make even the oft-analyzed Austen happy — and this film epitomizes ensemble acting at its best. That said, there's still the feeling that the whole affair is uninspired, a knock-off of a comedy of manners.

The heady rush to judgment in Pride & Prejudice or the achingly suppressed longing of Persuasion seem foreign to these Austen readers, who prefer their grand passions safely filed away in the pages of her books.

 

Opens Friday, Oct. 5, at the Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.

Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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