Coming as soon as it does after Becoming Jane, The Jane Austen Book Club suffers from an identification problem. I keep thinking it’s called Becoming the Jane Austen Book Club. By next week I’ll probably think it’s called Becoming the Jane Fonda Workout Video. In all seriousness, however, this is a perfectly cast, beautifully scripted, smartly directed little movie that won’t get the attention it deserves because it’ll be dismissed as a “chick flick” by a large portion of the viewing world and shied away from by another portion for being about reading. That’s too bad—especially for those who prejudice themselves against seeing the film. They won’t know what they’re missing.
Setting aside that stupidly divisive term “chick flick” (which is mostly code for “nothing blows up real neat”), let’s concentrate on what the movie isn’t. First and foremost, it isn’t a movie about reading. It’s a movie about people who read, and the effect that their reading has on them—both as concerns how reading impacts their lives and perceptions, and how their lives color their perceptions of what they read. This is pretty universal material. After all, one of the primary functions of art is to provide a sense of validation; its ability to make us feel less alone in this world, to warm our psyches by saying, “Yes, someone else has felt this way and understands.” We are, after all, drawn to things that either we relate to or that we feel relate to us.
This is what the film is primarily about—along with the basic human desire to share that which we like and relate to with others in the hope of finding flesh-and-blood kindred spirits. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about Jane Austen or Zane Grey or Wes Anderson or Rob Zombie, the principle is the same. It just happens that in this case, the topic is Jane Austen. And it doesn’t actually matter if you’ve read Austen. I haven’t read any Austen in years and probably have a greater familiarity with the cinematic adaptations of her books than the books themselves, but this was never a drawback to understanding or enjoying the movie.
The story concerns five women—played by Kathy Baker (All the King’s Men), Maria Bello (A History of Violence), Emily Blunt (The Devil Wears Prada), Amy Brenneman (TV’s Judging Amy) and Maggie Grace (TV’s Lost)—and one man—played by Hugh Dancy (Evening)—who form a literary circle devoted to discussing the works of Jane Austen. There are six members because there are six novels, and each is assigned a novel. At first the group is conceived as something to distract Jocelyn (Bello) from her grief at the death of a beloved dog, but it evolves as the film progresses. Jocelyn herself sees the group as a chance to set up Sylvia (Brenneman), whose husband (Jimmy Smits) just dumped her, with Grigg (Dancy). The inherent problem with that is that Grigg joined the group as a non-Austen fan and is mostly there out of a desire to romance Jocelyn herself (and to convert her to his favorite novelist, the sci-fi writer Ursula LeGuin).
As the story progresses, it becomes more and more about how the characters see themselves and their lives reflected in the books they’re discussing. So, yes, the film is by its very nature contrived, but it never feels that way—and better yet, the motivations of the characters are always pretty clear and don’t seem to be grounded in the mere need to get the story from point A to point B. The events flow naturally, and writer-director Swicord shows great precision in balancing the multiple threads of the story out so that no single thread overtakes the others. At bottom, it’s a subversive little movie—not because it might make you want to read Austen, though that’s probable, but because it offers some fairly weighty insights into the relationship of art and life, while posing as a lightweight romantic comedy. Austen herself might well have approved. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, sexual content, brief strong language and some drug use.