The Jane Austen Book Club has one of those titles that just goes for it. It's the kind of handle that makes a studio's marketing department sigh with resignation because there's no selling this thing beyond its target audience.
And from the discerning filmgoer's perspective, there's no need to read a synopsis to get the gist, like with Silk—Is it the name of a skin-eating killer in a horror movie? A romantic comedy about a seamstress who makes everyone else's wedding dress but her own?—or Eastern Promises—A drama set in New England? A documentary about Rodney MacDonald?—and any number of other current and recent releases.
The Jane Austen Book Club is Snakes on a Plane, it's Transformers, it's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. It says what it is, right there in the title.
You know whether you're going just by hearing it.
What might surprise you is that unlike Snakes on a Plane or Transformers, The Jane Austen Book Club doesn't just lean back on its concept and let you pay for a half-assed script and afterthought direction.
Based on the novel by Karen Joy Fowler and written by Robin Swicord, the vet behind Memoirs of a Geisha and Shag making her directorial debut here, Book Club structures the film's narrative around the themes and metaphors of each of Austen's six novels.
Like Todd Haynes' upcoming Bob Dylan experiment I'm Not There, it's a gimmick that works better if you're a fan—the parallels between the various women of the ensemble and Austen's lovelorn, class-obsessed heroines start to hit a little hard, especially when a character says something like "It's just like when Elizabeth Bennett..."
But when the source material wavers, Swicord has a stellar cast to cover it up. Rivalling the summer drama Evening in sheer awesomeness, the Book Club ensemble even shares an actor with that groaning disappointment—the same carefree zeal that made Hugh Dancy so ineffectual in the former plays incredibly well in the latter (perhaps it's because Book Club takes place in the present?) as the token male, Grigg (not Greg).
The book club's lynchpin is Bernie. She's played by Kathy Baker, who won Emmys in the '90s on Picket Fences and has aged into matronly guest spots on Gilmore Girls and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit as of late, but gets to play a sassy, oft-married rich lady here.
She recruits Prudie (Emily Blunt, doing a spectacular 180 from her Devil Wears Prada breakthrough), an uptight teacher in a crappy marriage who has a crush on one of her high school students (Kevin Zegers from Transamerica). Prudie joins Jocelyn (the always fab Maria Bello), who has filled the romantic holes in her life with dogs; Sylvia (Amy Brenneman, back on TV now in Private Practice), whose husband (Jimmy Smits, long past his NYPD Blue hot years) leaves her at the beginning of the film and her daughter Allegra (Maggie Grace), who is a thrill-seeking lesbian who falls in love instantly and constantly.
Grigg is brought into the fold by Jocelyn, who meets him in a hotel bar—she's there for a dog breeders' convention, he for a sci-fi event—and thinks he'd be a good rebound for Sylvia.
It's easy to write him off as a stand-in for all the men that one can assume are going to get pulled to this movie, but if that were the case you would get a dudier dude than the effeminate Dancy, who spends much of the movie in Lycra biking clothes.
He's more honest and sensitive than at least half of the women in the movie and his presence, along with some inspired snappy dialogue, are two of the things that elevate The Jane Austen Book Club above the usual conventions of its genre (though it does suffer from multiple bouts of Happy Ending Disease).
Just like its title suggests, The Jane Austen Book Club is what it is—a story about a book club that only reads Jane Austen.
But like any of the dusty old manors so evocatively described in Austen's stories, in the candlelit hallways and unswept corners lies just a bit more.
The Jane Austen Book Club opens Friday, October 5.