They say life imitates art; what they never tell you is that you don't get to choose the art. So it is for a group of Sacramento residents in Robin Swicord's film The Jane Austen Book Club, adapted for the screen from Karen Joy Fowler's novel. The Jane Austen Book Club (both film and entity) begins as a group of friends try to distract themselves from various personal crises: Jocelyn (Maria Bello) is getting over the death of one of her prized show dogs; Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) has had her lengthy marriage implode on her unexpectedly. The older, oft-married Bernadette (Kathy Baker) comes up with the idea of a book club to get Jocelyn and Sylvia out of their funks. Sylvia's daughter Allegra (Maggie Grace) joins out of solidarity; Jocelyn recruits high-tech worker Grigg (Hugh Dancy) for the club in the hope that sparks will fly between him and Sylvia; Bernadette reaches out to the bookish, unhappy Prudie (Emily Blunt) as a fresh voice for the club's conversations.
At first, the club looks to Jane Austen because her bygone age of simplicity and civility seems like a nice break from the indignities of modern life; Swicord's title sequence shows nothing but traffic jams, mercurial vending machines, blaring stereos and more. But soon, the group finds that when you get past the petticoats and starched collars and period trappings, Austen's central concerns -- relations between men and women, within families, and within ourselves -- are all too relevant to their lives. Jocelyn, at one point realizing that the plot of the club's current novel might resonate too fiercely for the despondent Sylvia mutters offhand that "Reading Jane Austen is a freaking minefield. ..."
And that's not just true for Sylvia, either. Each of the club's members finds something in Austen that speaks to their lives, as if the shape and tone of Austen's six novels were something like a Rorschach inkblot. Jocelyn questions her chosen isolation, Sylvia contemplates the collapse of her marriage, Prudie realizes that her brittle shell of retro-chic style and penchant for dropping French phrases into conversations can't make up for the way she and her husband are drifting apart. ... Swicord's past is in screenwriting (Memoirs of a Geisha, Little Women), and her directorial debut isn't a technical tour-de-force of composition and composition; it's primarily a light, performance-driven mix of comedy and drama where the dialogue glimmers with light even among the deeper shades in the tone.
And, thankfully, the performances themselves are good. Bello's strong even when conflicted, and open to possibility even when she's certain; Brenneman captures the shock and sorrow of an unexpected separation; Grace's Allegra is all heart, no head in her youthful pursuit of love. Blunt (most memorable from The Devil Wears Prada) is initially laughable, but lets us see behind the façade of Prudie's manner, and shows us how it's necessary. And Dancy is fairly charming as Grigg -- Jocelyn meets him at a hotel when she's there for a dog show and he's there for a Sci-Fi convention, but he dives into Austen with dedication and commitment, if not insight. (Grigg buys all of Austen's novels in one volume: "In case they were sequels. ...") Baker seems left out, but she's given some nice one-liners and pulls off a nicely-executed epilogue.
Swicord seems to be intimating something about the need for connection -- there's a variety of group activities going on in the background of The Jane Austen Book Club, from dog shows to live-action role playing, from high school theater productions to skydiving expeditions. It's suggested that having a little more of that in our lives might be a good thing for both us and society (a thesis more fully explored in the non-fiction book Bowling Alone) -- but that thesis gets left at the wayside in favor of tying up the various journeys of the various characters, with happy endings very much hoped for and not necessarily assured. The Jane Austen Book Club's light, slight and clever entertainment is occasionally too-clever, but the cast's performances and Swicord's sense of tone give it just enough charm to work.