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October 1, 2007 |

By John Williams | Film | October 1, 2007 |

Look, I’m as surprised as you are.

It’s not just that The Jane Austen Book Club manages to take a step toward redeeming the “chick flick” genre at this late date, or that it does the best it can to avoid the many pitfalls in its path, or that its fine cast redeems it. No. It’s actually good. Sure, there are quibbles — a clunky line here, a minor character unrealistically transformed there — but overall, it’s possible to applaud The Jane Austen Book Club without apologizing for it, to call it a pleasure without the “guilty” prefix. It’s proudly commercial, but only in the sense that it’s built for adults looking for untrendy entertainment, and it delivers that in a smart, unfussy way.

The set-up is simple. Five women in various states of romantic upheaval band together to read Austen’s six novels, each person responsible for leading the discussion on one of the books. (The sixth person admitted to the club is a man - more on that in a bit.)

When Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) learns from her husband, Daniel (Jimmy Smits), that he’s been seeing another woman for six months, a smooth-sailing marriage instantly runs aground. Sylvia’s lesbian daughter, Allegra (Maggie Grace), moves back home to tend to her mother’s emotional wounds. Jocelyn (Maria Bello) is a friend of Sylvia’s who prefers the company of her show dogs to men but wants her friend to rebound, pronto. To that end, she makes nice with a young man named Grigg (Hugh Dancy), and invites him to join the nascent book club.

Bernadette (Kathy Baker) is a free spirit, married and divorced many times over, currently single but not too worried about it. In line at a movie theater, she meets Prudie (Emily Blunt), a high school French teacher and knowledgeable fan of Austen stuck in a frustrating marriage to Dean (Marc Blucas), who she considers a sports-loving, wife-neglecting meathead. Bernadette recruits Prudie, and the group is full.

The plot from there unfolds in ways predictable enough to be comforting but also fresh enough to keep interest. Recounting the specifics is pointless - they’re what keep you watching - but it’s worth noting the broad things the movie gets right when it would have been so easy for this to be a disappointment (if not an embarrassment):

1. It respects its source material. As the credits were rolling, the friend who saw it with me (a big Austen fan, and the type who would gleefully skewer a movie that did her work wrong) turned to me and said, “I think Jane Austen would approve.” The movie manages to echo several of Austen’s plots in its various story lines, without clumsily attempting to perfectly replicate any one of them (or even worse, all six).

2. It doesn’t spend too much time on the books, and it doesn’t make their lessons overly explicit. It’s nice to see a movie that takes books and readers seriously in a casual, non academic way, but it’s even nicer that the movie doesn’t just plop us in the middle of a book-club discussion for two hours, a punishment on which even Alberto Gonzalez might not sign off. Instead, a few brief minutes are spent on each book, but almost always in the service of the women’s stories. The organizing conceit, which could have been the movie’s downfall, is maintained with a light touch. Near the end, after Jocelyn applies one of Austen’s insights to real life, Grigg lifts up his massive single volume of all six novels and asks her, eyebrows skeptically raised, “So, this is a rulebook?” At which point Jocelyn backs off. It was at this moment that I realized I hadn’t dreamed the shrewdness of the movie up to that point - not only did it avoid the hazard of becoming Jane Austen’s Rules for Landing a Man After 35, but it gently sent up the notion.

3. It respects men and women. Within reason, anyway. This is a conventional Hollywood movie in almost all ways (just a well executed example of the form), so there are characters who aren’t as well drawn as others, but everyone is allowed complexity. In fact, for a chick flick, it lets a guy steal the show - Darcy’s Grigg is charming and expertly played, given some of the funniest and most sympathetic moments in the movie.

4. It doesn’t make suburban existence a theme. This is a strange and subtle one, but it’s maybe what I liked best about the movie - set in the ‘burbs of California, it features a scene in a Starbucks, someone in tech support who owns a large house, and people running into each other in supermarket parking lots, but it never presumes that these facts “mean” anything that we can deduce. On both its surface and in its subtext, the movie does its characters the favor of not condescending to (or sanctimoniously defending) their lifestyle choices. In short, it assumes there are more important things than where people buy their wine, an assumption that seems to be made less and less in our popular culture.

5. It casts realistic people. Yes, Emily Blunt is very beautiful. Yes, I’m distracted by this. Yes, I almost devoted every word of this review to that beauty. But she’s easily good enough as Prudie that you can forgive the Hollywood Factory of Women You Will Never Meet and Who Might Not Even Exist for unleashing her on the world. Otherwise, the attractive Bello, Brenneman, Grace, and Baker nonetheless all look like their characters might look. There’s not a syringe of Botox in sight. Aside from Trey (Kevin Zegers), a studly high school student who tempts Prudie and looks like he probably walks through life to a soundtrack of Dashboard Confessional, everyone on display is pleasingly life-like.

6. It has a too-brief, disconcerting-but-terrific cameo by Lynn Redgrave as Prudie’s bawdy, depressed, uncontrollable mother.

I understand that last one is not something every movie can manage, but the rest of the list is a useful guide for filmmakers to follow. If they did, old-fashioned entertainments - the kind that might not break ground or win awards but that move to their predictable finish lines with integrity - might just regain their good name yet.

John Williams lives in Brooklyn. He’s a freelance writer. He blogs at A Special Way of Being Afraid.

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