The Jane Austen Book Club movie review: WWJD?

part of my Directed by Women series
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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 (Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, Bless the Child) and Hugh Dancy (Evening, Basic Instinct 2) 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 people clever and engaged enough to enjoy reading for fun may, in theory, be desirable, movies about people actually reading are less than totally 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… and 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, individual but one human with breasts could stand in for half the human race. 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 (Thank You for Smoking, A History of Violence) fiercely independent dog trainer; Emily Blunt’s (The Devil Wears Prada) lonely-in-her-marriage schoolteacher; Kathy Baker’s (Nine Lives, 13 Going on 30) when-I-am-old-I-will-wear-purple romantic adventuress; Amy Brenneman’s (Nine Lives, Off the Map) despondent divorcée; Maggie Grace’s (Lost) 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 up a little club among themselves to reread and chew over their favorite author (guess who?), the outcome isn’t as thoroughly engaging as they are 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 down to director Robin Swicord, making her feature-film debut here: she wrote the scripts for such icky, Hollywoodized depictions of womanhood as Memoirs of a Geisha and Practical Magic, 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. I do know this: Club — both book and movie — features the guy character Grigg (played by Dancy in the movie), 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, though Grigg infinitely prefers, ahem, science fiction and fantasy. I do know that the movie — I haven’t read the book — focuses more on questions of Which gal will end up with Grigg? and Who will see what ails her cure by the wisdom of Jane? than anything else. I wonder — and this is mere speculation, of course — whether Fowler and/or her movie adaptors didn’t dumb down the inherent intellectualism of Fowler’s writing (I have read some of her SF/F) in order to craft a more palatable, and consequently more simplistic, story for mainstream audiences.

I don’t think that’s something Jane would have done.

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Sat, Sep 29, 2007 12:56am

Really, the lack of real drama in the act of reading (which is of course almost entirely internal) reminds me of the same problem that movies about people using computers run into: it’s a sedentary, visually uninteresting activity. And unlike say, hacking, which Hollywood likes to show by using graphic animation well beyond the capabilities of most personal computers and current broadband internet bandwidth, there aren’t really any visual shortcuts around this…all they can do is have the characters talk about the books.

Mon, Oct 01, 2007 2:10am

I saw this yesterday, and really enjoyed it. Coincidentally, I went into a bookstore afterward and came face to face with Fowler’s book, which I’d never read. Having read the first couple of pages out of curiosity, I think if anything the movie was probably an improvement on the writing in the book. Not sure what her SF/F is like, but this seemed to be headed in the cloying, precious direction, which is what I feared about the movie but never happened.

Mon, Oct 01, 2007 7:21pm

ot sure what her SF/F is like, but this seemed to be headed in the cloying, precious direction

Well, and that’s probably why it was a bestseller when her SF/F will never be.

Blonde Bronte
Blonde Bronte
Wed, Oct 03, 2007 1:36am

Though I haven’t seen the film or read the book, I have to admit I’m a little puzzled–and slightly amused–at the surge of Jane Austen mania in the media right now. During a recent browse through the B&N on Lexington Ave in Manhattan, I was amazed at how many “Jane” themed books/bios/novels the bookshelves were breeding! What amazes me is that we view Austen as some Regency-era feminist, whom women give a collective “you go girl!” shout out to. I’ve read all of Austen’s novels, and frankly, I see nothing of the independent-minded free spirit everyone else sees. No matter how lively her heroines, no matter how much she commented–albeit with sharp-tongued subtlty–about the hypocritical governings of society, every novel ended with a convenient marriage to a wealthy man, who could support said herione et family and thus, provide the domestic stability Austen herself rebuffed. “Becoming Jane”–though 100% fiction over fact–only furthered this paradox by presenting its lovers with a flimsy reason for not being together–um, hello… ever heard of a “long engagement” until luva’boy’s a lawyer and can support himself w/o Uncle’s money?!–and
glorifying the lonely life of someone who chose pride and dignity over love.

Tonio Kruger
Tonio Kruger
Thu, Oct 04, 2007 3:30pm

Well, they rewrote the life-story of Pocahontas to appease modern audiences so why not rewrite Jane Austen’s life-story?

Blonde Bronte
Blonde Bronte
Thu, Oct 04, 2007 10:34pm

…and I actually really liked “Becoming Jane”–but they could have replaced Austen with ____________ (insert old-fashioned sounding name) and still gotten the same results. I guess my beef with Jane Austen is that all her stories run the same plot gauntlet, with the same outcomes, in the same settings and along the same comedy of manners. She really was one of those writers who “wrote what she knew.” Nothing she did required courage or imagination–just ladylike wit and a penance for simpering, underprivledged sisters. Writers like the Bronte sisters, Mary Shelley, Emily Dickinson, all lead lives much the same as Austen–middleclass, often in painful isolation, seldom venturing out of their homes (save for Shelley in her later life, but that was only after she–ahem!–eloped) and yet they tapped into their imaginations and inner, often VERY unladylike musings to produce some of the most startling and original work in literature. If Austen were alive today, she’d be writing for Lady’s Home Journal. No thanks.

Fri, Oct 05, 2007 12:58am

No, if Austen were alive today, she would have been writing for *Seinfeld.*

Austen’s work is brilliant for her insights into human nature… and there was certainly nothing “ladylike” about wit in her time. Even today, there’s a very narrow range of “funny” that is considered “ladylike.”

Blonde Bronte
Blonde Bronte
Fri, Oct 05, 2007 11:40am

Seinfeld? MA, I hope you’re just being cheeky! Since I’m having a good morning, I’ll allow her Marie Claire or even a Penny Marshall thread–but that ‘s being awwwwwfffulllllyyy generous…
As for her insights into human nature–are they all that insightful if they all come to the same conclusion, every time, every character? Austen had about 4 different character insights:
1) The spirited, willful herione struggling between marrying for money to support her family or following her heart.
2) The seemingly arrogant aristocratic gentleman who, in the end, is just covering up for his big ol’ heart.
3) The gossipy, hypocritical widow who wants all the young people to marry and marry well, just like she did, despite the fact that it made her unhappy.
4) The “rogue” or “scoundrel” who attempts to steal the heroine away from the hero, until the good country folk politely tell him off.
–And of course, the usual array of well-meaning parents, frumpy, shy side-kicks to the heroine and vast assortment of the rich and bored.
–true, her novels are certainly praised more for their character studies than their plots or action, but again, it’s the same character study each time! And yes, “funny” today def. isn’t the funny of yesterday–it’s cruder, dumber and much easier for audiences too lazy to look for anything more complex or–god forbid–subtle. But Austen’s brand of wit was very much accepted in her time–otherwise she wouldn’t have been so widely published or praised.
But that’s the beauty of humans–we can disagree. I prefer my writers/heroines of the Bronte/Dorothy Parker/Virginia Woolf/Mae West variety–gutsy, out-spoken and–dare I admit it?– successfully lewd in a way that leaves men scratching their heads.

Fri, Oct 05, 2007 4:50pm

Seinfeld? MA, I hope you’re just being cheeky!

Not at all. There’s something very Austen-esque in *Seinfeld* in that it highlighted and explored and satirized the manners and mores of a culture… in *Seinfeld*’s case, the urban late 20th century.

Austen’s brand of wit was very much accepted in her time

Accepted as an amusing novelty, I think: “Hey, look at the clever girl — isn’t she cute?” That kind of thing.

I like Dorothy Parker and her ilk, too. That does not preclude appreciating Austen, though.

Tonio Kruger
Tonio Kruger
Tue, Jul 15, 2014 10:13pm

Heh. Irony.

“And speaking of Dickens,” Grigg said — were they never to be done speaking of Dickens! — “I was trying to think of contemporary writers who devote that same care to the secondary characters, and it occurred to me that it’s a common sitcom device. You can just imagine how today Austen would be writing “The Elinor Show,” with Elinor as the solid moral center and the others stumbling into and out of her New York apartment with their wacky lives.”
–Karen Joy Fowler, The Jane Austen Book Club (c. 2004)

I guess great minds really do think alike…

Tonio Kruger
Tonio Kruger
Tue, Jul 15, 2014 10:38pm

I’m not sure what dumbing down means in a world where director Paul Verhoeven’s not-exactly-as-highbrow-as-the-original versions of Hitchcock and Heinlein regularly receive critical praise and the most commonly read author by most literate English-speaking adults on the Net seems to be not Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, Leo Tolstoy, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mary Shelley, the Bronte Sisters or even John Steinbeck but rather J. K. Rowling.


I will, however, admit that I liked this movie despite not being a big fan of Jane Austen and that it actually made me more interested in reading Ms. Austen’s books than the usual moral sermons about our duty to read great books and so forth.

Granted, I was not happy about every plot twist in this movie. Moreover, I will admit that after reading the original novel right afterwards, I found more than a few of the movie’s embellishments on the original plot a bit disappointing. And even some of the “improvements” left a bit to be desired. As nice as it was to see Jimmy Smits on the big screen again, I could have done with another version of the old “unfaithful Latino husband” stereotype. And even the movie’s attempts to show the universal appeal of Ms. Austen’s books left me feeling more than a little sorry for members of the one minority group associated with Southern California that was consciously left out of the movie.

Then again I did like the way literary science fiction got treated in a respectful way for once and how the movie avoided the usual jokes about Star Trek fans and Star Wars aficionados. Given some of the recent developments in Maria Bello’s personal life, I found some of the focus placed on her character’s failure to marry a bit ironic if not unintentionally humorous but at least that character received a more respectful treatment from the script than most middle-aged female characters normally receive in these types of movies.

It’s not exactly a movie I would recommend for everyone but it was not a movie that made me sorry to have seen it. Then again I’m a big fan of literary sci-fi –though not necessarily of Ms. Fowler — so, ahem — I’m biast.