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Jane Austen Never Left Loose Ends Either

If you want a good story, read a book by Jane Austen. If you want some momentary entertainment of little consequence, go see The Jane Austen Book Club. The film, adapted (from the book by Karen Joy Fowler) and directed by Robin Swicord, seems to want to comment on the complexity of romantic interaction in today’s world, using Austen’s turn-of-the-19th-century stories as model and structuring device.
Five women and one man gather to discuss each of Austen’s six books. Six-time bride Bernadette (Kathy Baker) culls the group from friends—Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) and Sylvia’s freewheeling lesbian daughter, Allegra (Maggie Grace)—to distract anti-relationship dog breeder Jocelyn (Maria Bello), who has lost a beloved hound. Two strangers are roped in: Grigg (Hugh Dancy), invited by Jocelyn, and Prudie (Emily Blunt), a French teacher and Austen aficionado. In the span of a little over a year, everyone’s lives are patched up perfectly, an ending whose sickly sweetness spoils the rest of the film.
The strong point is the solid cast. Most notable is Blunt as Prudie, the tightly wound daughter of a hippie, caught between a disappointing marriage and the prospect of (very) young love with one of her students. Her pain is the most profound of all the women’s, and Blunt makes us ache for her and the bitterness she can no longer keep securely lidded. Brenneman easily plays the comic moments but nails the hard stuff as well. Bello generally doesn’t let us past Jocelyn’s unassailable emotional exoskeleton; when she does, it’s almost too obvious. The character is likable, however, credit to the actor. Baker and Grace turn in serviceable work.
While the emotions within are true to life, if a little stereotypical, and there are plenty of chuckle-worthy moments, the piece doesn’t make any monumental discoveries about the human experience. Not that anyone expects it to. It’s exactly what it appears to be: a romantic comedy, a chick flick. And you can tell that by the marginal treatment of the story’s men. Grigg, though endearingly portrayed by the charismatic Dancy, is merely the nice underdog, interested in and rebuffed by Jocelyn as she pushes him onto the newly single Sylvia. As Prudie’s husband, Marc Blucas rises beyond the inattentive man’s man Dean seems to be, capably expressing the character’s confusion about what his wife wants and needs. Kevin Zegers as Prudie’s crush, Trey, is intense and enchanting; Trey is disarmingly more mature than the typical 18-year-old boy—which may be part of his appeal to Prudie—yet the character is, like the other men, one-note. Jimmy Smits is enjoyable as Daniel, Sylvia’s philandering husband. But Daniel is underwritten, sometimes coming off as false—or perfectly written, the definition of a man in a midlife crisis—but flat either way, and so Smits has trouble creating a rounded man.
—Janelle Tipton

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