The second metafictional movie about Jane Austen in as many months, The Jane Austen Book Club seems to understand the famed author’s work about as well as the faux biography Becoming Jane did, which is to say not very well at all. The difference is that while Becoming was all about Austen herself, and thus backed itself into a corner with its reductive approach, Book Club is about the author’s fans, and even if it has a skewed perception of her books, it has a pretty savvy one of a certain class of people who read them.
Those are the protagonists of this film, five women, all lonely to one degree or another, all vaguely cultured and intellectual in a safe way, all looking to Austen’s books more as mirrors into their own lives and tools for self-improvement than as classic literature or glimpses into social mores of time gone by. While Austen was concerned with the way that love could bloom within a rigid class and social structure, both Becoming and Book Club seem to value that system as a method for finding love in the first place, as the simplistic “What Would Jane Do?” prescription (actually flashed on a traffic light at one point in the film) attests.
As misguided as it may be, the overidentification with Austen as a symptom of modern malaise for upper-middle-class women gets taken seriously here, and screenwriter-director Swicord (working from the novel by Karen Joy Fowler) paints a warm and sympathetic portrait of her characters and their searches for companionship.
The structure, which finds the club reading all six of Austen’s novels over a six-month period, and concurrently experiencing romantic travails that parallel the books’ plot elements, is a little too schematic and cutesy to be wholly satisfying, and the movie is sometimes achingly cheesy and predictable. But Swicord keeps things low-key, never striking the big, loud notes of mainstream romantic comedy, and her cast is utterly charming. It’s refreshing to see substantive romantic roles for women over 40, and Bello and Brenneman bring wonderfully human touches to their parts as the nominal leads.
Book Club may have a muddled view of Austen, but at least it values literature as a vital part of modern life; the author herself certainly would have approved of that, even if she would have found the storytelling a bit superficial and derivative.
The Jane Austen Book Club
Maria Bello, Amy Brenneman, Emily Blunt, Hugh Dancy, Kathy Baker, Maggie Grace
Directed by Robin Swicord