IN THE GRIM MORASS OF MOVIES arriving daily about abortion, incest, suicide, terrorism, the corruption of power and unendurable violence, a sweet romantic comedy like The Jane Austen Book Club was as bracing as a daiquiri. In a neurotic, geopolitically worn-out world of cellphones, computer screens, ugly SUV’s and gym obsession, a civilized group of five women and one shy man in suburban California form a club to read and discuss the complete works of Jane Austen. Writer Robin Swicord (Memoirs of a Geisha) is no Jane Austen, but in her directorial debut, she does a neat job of moving a talented ensemble through the paces as each club member introduces a new crisis similar to the ones in the novels under analysis. Bernadette (Kathy Baker), married six times, sees the group as an “antidote to life.” Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) has just been dumped by her husband (Jimmy Smits) for a bimbo after 20 years of marriage. Jocelyn (Maria Bello) is a lonely woman whose whole life revolved around a dog that just died. Grigg (Hugh Dancy) is a boyish computer geek who agrees to read the books—although he is more interested in science fiction—just so he can win over Jocelyn. Prudie (Emily Blunt, who stole every scene she was in as the haughty editorial assistant in The Devil Wears Prada) is a pretentious French teacher neglected by a husband who cares more about the NBA than his wife’s emotional security. Tackling a book a month, they undergo changes that parallel the Austen narratives, giving them paradox and pause. During Mansfield Park, Grigg gets pushed reluctantly into a date with Sylvia’s lesbian daughter, although he’s more interested in her mother and the grieving Jocelyn. By the time they reach Pride and Prejudice, Prudie is having an affair with one of her high-school students, and Sylvia thinks she’s interested in Grigg but realizes it’s her estranged husband she’s needed all along. Bernadette supervises them all like a character out of Virginia Woolf, not Jane Austen. In the end, even the husband who loves the NBA gives up sports and devours every word of Persuasion. Hugh Dancy (Evening) is prettier than all of the ladies put together. The ladies do their best to hold their own, but who can compete with the books under scrutiny? Slickly produced, endearingly performed, it’s a charming movie that is utterly conventional yet very entertaining. Target audience: middle-aged women who have heard of the author but only seen the movies. The moral is that you can find the solution to every problem in life in the works of Jane Austen. Can the Oprah Book Club on the complete works of Jacqueline Susann be far behind?
More escapist pleasure awaits you in Lars and the Real Girl, a dizzy, offbeat comedy starring the terrific Ryan Gosling as a catatonically shy man who falls in love with an anatomically correct blowup sex doll named Bianca. His family wants to have him committed, but in time the neighbors grow so fond of Bianca they regard her as one of the town’s most popular citizens. It’s a combination of Kids in the Hall comedy and a cautionary tale about not judging a book by its cover (or a toy by its bust size).
The anticipation I customarily reserve for every new Woody Allen film was dampened by Cassandra’s Dream. Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell play hopelessly irresponsible brothers who are forced to commit a murder to pay off their gambling debts, only to discover that one crime leads to another. Sinking deeper into criminal quicksand by the day, they land in the same boat as Jonathan Rhys Meyers in Match Point. Gloomy and grim, Cassandra’s Dream is named after the boat the brothers buy that they can’t afford, which triggers all the trouble that follows. It’s not Woody at his best. Since he moved to London to work, he seems fixated on Montgomery Clift’s moral dilemma in A Place in the Sun: To get ahead in life, you have to kill the thing you love to get the thing you love even more.
Movies that reflect the fear, pain and despair of the times we live in were abundant. Reservation Road is an emotionally wrenching study of grief following a hit-and-run accident that severely impacts the lives of the dead child’s parents (Joaquin Phoenix and Jennifer Connelly) and the lawyer (Mark Ruffalo) they hire to find and prosecute the runaway driver. It’s a harrowing film that builds to a shattering climax in which nothing happens the way you think it will.
Rendition is a political thriller about the repercussions from the post 9/11 “extraordinary rendition” policy that grants the government the right to hold anyone suspected of terrorism without evidence, legal counsel or civil rights of any kind for as long as the C.I.A. sees fit. In a heartbreaking role light years away from Legally Blonde, Reese Witherspoon gives a mature and sympathetic performance as the pregnant wife of an Egyptian-American geologist on his way home to Chicago from a business conference in South Africa who is abducted, rerouted to Morocco, stripped naked and tortured. Rounding out a dazzling cast, Jake Gyllenhaal is the rookie C.I.A. agent recruited to watch the abuse, Peter Sarsgaard is the old college chum who tries to help his friend find her missing husband, and Meryl Streep is the terrifying, marble-cold C.I.A. official empowered to destroy lives with a single phone call. This is a chilling wake-up call to the crimes against humanity the U.S. government commits every day in all of our names. It is destined to be one of the most controversial films of the year.
After sitting through documentaries on Jimmy Carter in Plains, Georgia, Lou Reed in Berlin, a heavy metal band in Baghdad, an 80-something surfer with nine surfer children living in a one-room trailer, Nazi torturer Klaus Barbie, and Maria Callas, I knew it was time to throw in the towel when I headed for the exits halfway through a horror called The Pope’s Toilet, about a town in Uruguay awaiting a visit from the pope where an old man devotes his life (and about two hours of running time) to the construction of an outhouse so His Holiness will have a comfortable place to relieve himself.
On the day I left, they unveiled a film noir about German reality TV with a cocaine-snorting industrial saboteur who creates a hit show on which contestants do unspeakable things on the air with their semen. The title is Reclaim Your Brain. After Toronto, that’s exactly what I intend to do.