08 April 2009

The Jane Austen Book Club

The Jane Austen Book Club Wasn’t Half Bad
By Leigh Wood

First, allow me a disclaimer: I don’t like Jane Austen. I don’t read much Regency at all. In fact, I really actually hate Jane Austen and liked nothing I’ve read by her. So, why am I watching The Jane Austen Book Club?

The Jane Austen Book ClubDivorcee Bernadette (Kathy Baker, Picket Fences) decides to help her friends overcome life’s troubles by starting an all Jane Austen book club. Happily independent dog breeder Jocelyn (Maria Bello) recruits sci-fi geek Griggs (Hugh Dancy, Blood and Chocolate) to the book group, in hopes he will distract her best friend Sylvia (Amy Brennman) from her recent divorce with Daniel (Jimmy Smits). Their gay daughter Allegra (Maggie Grace, Lost) is reluctant to join the club, but moves back in with her mother. Confused French teacher Prudie (Emily Blunt) struggles with her sports minded husband Dean (Marc Blucas) and her attraction to student Trey (Kevin Zegers, Air Bud). As the group reads Austen’s six novels, the works take on new meaning against their current trials and tribulations.

You’ll forgive me if some of the cute references and allusions to Austen’s work go over my head, and I must say I find it irritating that source author Karen Joy Fowler can write a book essentially copying all six of Austen’s novels. The storylines from each book weave through here and each of the ladies mirrors Austen’s heroines. As I said, I don’t know all the finite details of all of Austen, but some of the Emma matchmaking and Persuasion relating is way obvious. Do something original already! Then again, The Jane Austen Book Club is a bestseller and a successful movie, so what do I know?

The Jane Austen Book Club’s realistically cast and likeable ladies are what keep the film’s storyline from going over the top. Each lady has her moment to shine according to what month and book is on, though I think an opportunity was lost in the too brief appearance of Lynn Redgrave (Gods and Monsters, Shine) as Prudie’s commune living, pothead Mama Sky. Instead of getting to the meat of this relationship, this intrigue is only used to make Prudie more neurotic and Austen dependant. I have to stay, I didn’t recognize Emily Blunt (The Devil Wears Prada, Henry VIII) amid her (hee) plain Jane, French loving style. Each gal and guy is a little clichéd and obvious, but since we are familiar with most of the cast, we indulge. I like Amy Brenneman (Judging Amy), even if she seems to play a lot of the same characters. It’s nice to see not just the young, hip chicks, and clichéd lesbians (They’re not butch, but young and pretty yet we never see them hot and heavy onscreen like the hetero couples), but older women as well. No one here is thirty-something.

I don’t necessarily like Maria Bello (The Dark, ER), but I’m seeing her in more and more films. She isn’t stellar or unique, but somehow bohemian and free spirited. I swear she looks pregnant in this film-all her clothes are baggy and her boho bags are always in front of her stomach. The looks aren’t flattering, and it is odd to see her with the young techie Griggs. Unfortunately, the men get shorted here-ranging from sensitive boy toys to jerky husbands. I can see that Marc Blucas (It’s Riley from Buffy!) might not have had many offers coming his way, but why did Jimmy Smits (Dexter, The West Wing, NYPD Blue, Star Wars) take on such an unflattering part? He’s a respected working actor who can get a lot meatier part I’m sure. Again, character relationships were sacrificed between Smits and Brenneman-who looks just dandy together onscreen- in favor of more Austen reflections.

Now, I’m sure there are plenty of die hard Austenites out there, but I barely got through Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, and to me, Northanger Abbey is totally inferior to Wuthering Heights. I don’t like her style or her uppity and romancey subject matter, and can’t see how any modern successful woman can enjoy books about prim ladies who stay home all day and debate love versus money. I don’t think I’m a feminist, but I don’t know how anybody who favors women’s equality can enjoy the backward movement of Jane Austen. Oh, Keira Knightly in Becoming Jane! It’s nothing to be proud of to say you’ve read all of Austen, it just proves what a girly girl you are. Sports head Dean and Jane wannabe Prudie would never have even married in real life. As if a guy like that would really turn on the dime over Persuasion. The Jane Austen Book Club is a little unrealistic in saying that loving Jane Austen cures all. Like Jocelyn’s reluctance to read Ursula Le Guin, there’s a lot better classic literature out there, and far better material to emulate.

Parents, teachers, and watchdog groups always complain that watching too much television, seeing so much sex and violence, and playing too many video games is frying the next generation’s brains. If human see, human do is true and kids kill and have sex because they see it on television; then shouldn’t the same logic say that if we see people reading books on film, we might read more? Sure, we see someone holding a book for a few seconds in a window seat or at school, but the nature of the book and its story don’t often come into play in a mainstream movie’s plot. Yes it’s a bit too chick flick for these ladies to be bemoaning Austen’s work in relation to their own lives-I kept waiting for someone to say ‘Are we still talking about Sense and Sensibility or are we on you now?’. It is, however, refreshing to see the good, bad, and ugly of a book’s characters, style, and story discussed by a mixed group of intelligent, respectable people. These aren’t geeky loveless teens infatuated with Shakespeare ala 10 Things I Hate About You; for so often if books are figured into film, it’s usually the uptight nerd of a group who loves libraries and fawns over books. Is this an accurate representation of readership in America? I think not. When will we see hip, tech savvy, post college folks reading via Kindles onscreen?

The Jane Austen Book Club will probably scare away most men, understandably, but hard-edged women who don’t like chick flicks or women’s fiction should also avoid. Anyone who loves films about books should give this one a chance- if there is an all books all the time television channel out there, please let me know so I can pester my cable company about it! Of course, anyone who loves a bit of sappy viewing and good old Jane herself will enjoy. The Jane Austen Book Club is not as heavy on the chick as a lot of recent romantic comedies, and it did keep my interest to the end. Nevertheless, I kept thinking of that famous quote by Mark Twain: Every time I read Pride and Prejudice, I want to dig up Jane Austen and beat her over the head with her own shinbone!

1 comment:

Kristin Battestella said...

Nice Review, Leigh. I too prefer Napoleonic before Regency. Sharpe, anyone? ;0)