Plain Jane

sarris jausten3h Plain JaneTHE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB
RUNNING TIME 106 minutes
DIRECTED BY Robin Swicord
STARRING Maria Bello, Lynn Redgrave, Kathy Baker, Jimmy Smits

Robin Swicord’s The Jane Austen Book Club, from her own screenplay, based on the eponymous novel by Karen Joy Fowler, succeeds only partially and only intermittently in establishing connections between six contemporary central Californian members of a Jane Austen book club and the Regency England characters in Austen’s six novels, which, in case you’ve forgotten, are Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion.

There are at least two problems with the attempted transplantations of two sets of fictional characters almost two centuries apart, on two different continents in very different societies. The first has to do with the respective ages of the two sets of protagonists. Austen (1775-1817) lived at a time when the average life span was much shorter than our own, as Austen’s own dates would indicate. Hence, her heroines tend to be in their late teens or early 20’s when they begin their searches for suitable husbands, whereas most of the members of The Jane Austen Book Club are in their late 30’s or early 40’s, and are more likely to be looking for a second chance rather than first loves. Also, there are fewer rigid rules for propriety today than there were in Austen’s time, and thereby fewer outlets for neurotic behavior.

Anyway, the gender ratio of book club members in this decidedly chick-lit flick complete with a set of Austenish happy endings is probably realistic with its five females to one male. The club’s founder, Bernadette (Kathy Baker), is the oldest member of the group, and both its driving force and supportive presence. Jocelyn (Maria Bello) has long preferred dogs to men, and tends rare breeds of canines on a small ranch outside Sacramento.

Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) happens to be Jocelyn’s lifelong friend from their high-school days, and must cope with the abrupt desertion of her husband, Daniel (Jimmy Smits), for another woman. Sylvia’s very mixed-up daughter, Allegra (Maggie Grace), joins the club mostly to console her mother, who is unaware of her daughter’s lesbian orientation and her propensity for life-threatening diversions like sky diving, kayaking and rock climbing, each of which land her in hospital emergency rooms.

Prudie (Emily Blunt) is a newly married high-school teacher of French whose husband, Dean (Marc Blucas), has just broken her heart by canceling their long-anticipated delayed honeymoon trip to Paris for a business trip of his own. Grigg (Hugh Dancy), the lone male of the group and clearly its oddball, is a geeky sci-fi enthusiast. He has actually been indirectly recruited by Jocelyn when he tries to pick her up in a hotel elevator that is taking them to separate conventions of science-fiction enthusiasts and dog-show participants. She persuades him to join the club after considering him as a possible new boyfriend for the still-heartbroken Sylvia. But Grigg remains interested only in Jocelyn despite her frequent rebuffs.

There are many public occasions in addition to the separate at-home get-togethers for the club members to chart their differing destinies in accordance with the copiously quoted stratagems in each Austen novel. Prudie’s brashly hippie-pothead mother, Sky (Lynn Redgrave), and Trey (Kevin Zegers), an aggressively amorous high-school senior who offers Prudie a compensatory fling after her lost trip to Paris, complete the roster of initiates into the Austen-like whirl of romantic raptures. The cast alone makes The Jane Austen Book Club good—though not great—entertainment for at least the bookish moviegoers among us.

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