The Jane Austen-ification of chick culture is, alas, something of a conundrum for a thinking gal such as myself. On the one hand, Jane was all about independence, backbone, and not settling, romantically. On the other hand, Jane's popularity these days seems to be all about the empire waists and the balls and the swooning over Colin Firth or whoever the Darcy of the day is. Not that Colin Firth — or Matthew Macfadyen or James McAvoy — ain't worthy of being swooned over, but still, I think Jane would be astonished at the modern longing for the very constricted culture she was, in her own ladylike way, railing against.
So a movie like The Jane Austen Book Club — in which Colin Firth does not appear although Jimmy Smits and Hugh Dancy do, and either of them on his own might be enough of a consolation — is something of a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it's about people who read, which is a rarity in itself. It's about smart, complicated women the likes of which The Movies usually don't want to deal with. And it's not about empire waists and the hotness of Mr. Darcy (passing references to him aside). On the other hand, it doesn't really have all that much new or intriguing to say about those smart women or about books in general or Austen in particular. It points out a remarkable and yet not, in hindsight, entirely surprising fact: While movies about clever people who enjoy reading may, in theory, be desirable, movies about people actually reading are less than enthralling.
I don't want to overly diminish the very real charms of Club, which features one of the most engaging ensemble casts I've seen in a goodly while. In fact, it's one of the most varied and engaging casts of women in an industry that typically allows one slot to "the girl," as if men were the only gender in which individuals were, you know, individuals. So hurrah for this band of gal pals at various romantic crossroads. They are contemplating affairs or recovering from divorce or happily single or unhappily single (but unable to admit it). They are in love with their work, in love with their lives (mostly), in love with the idea of men (and women) in general. They are all so wildly warm and strange and genuine and funny and exasperating and sharp, the kinds of gals a thinking gal would love to befriend: Maria Bello's fiercely independent dog trainer, Emily Blunt's lonely-in-her-marriage schoolteacher, Kathy Baker's when-I-am-old-I-will-wear-purple romantic adventuress, Amy Brenneman's despondent divorcée, Maggie Grace's coltish youngster still discovering love and sex and trust and betrayal. Real women, not-characters-in-a-movie women, probably already have friends just like these, of course — and that's a particular joy of Club, one that few chick flicks ever achieve. These women are not stereotypes, and spending time with them is fun and rewarding.
Yet, when they form a little club to reread and chew over their favorite author (guess who?), the outcome isn't as thoroughly engaging as these women are when they're just being themselves. "Reading Jane Austen is a freakin' minefield," Bello's Jocelyn states, but the movie never reaches the levels of explosive emotionalism that line would suggest. I don't know if that's the fault of director Robin Swicord, making her feature-film debut here — she wrote the scripts for Memoirs of a Geisha and Practical Magic, two icky, Hollywoodized depictions of womanhood, and adapted this script from the novel by Karen Joy Fowler — or if this is a flaw in the novel itself.
I do know this: Fowler made her name, in smallish literary circles, as a writer of science fiction and fantasy, but it wasn't until she published The Jane Austen Book Club that she had a bestseller. And she clearly still loves her first genre, for here, we have the guy character Grigg (Dancy), a sweet, handsome fellow whom Jocelyn coaxes into joining the reading group in the hopes of getting Brenneman's Sylvia out of her romantic funk. Grigg is game, though he infinitely prefers science fiction and fantasy and Jocelyn to Sylvia. Where the plot works best is in stuff like Grigg's intellectual wooing of Jocelyn — he was smitten with her the moment they met — as he tries to coax her past her prejudice against science fiction, and how he brings his own unique perspective, formed by his love of sci-fi, to Austen. There's a zing of brainy playfulness ringing through Club that, alas, gets lost too often in the far more clichéd rom-com questions of "which gal will end up with Grigg?" and "who will be cured by the most banal, surface-level wisdom of Jane?" It makes for a more simplistic and less satisfying story.
I don't think that's something Jane would have done.