DVD Release Date:  February 5, 2008
Theatrical Release Date:  October 5, 2007
Rating:  PG-13 (for mature thematic material, sexual content, brief strong language and some drug use)
Genre:  Drama/Romance
Run Time:  106 min.
Director:  Robin Swicord
Actors:  Amy Brenneman, Maria Bello, Emily Blunt, Kathy Baker, Maggie Grace, Hugh Dancy, Jimmy Smits, Kevin Zegers, Marc Blucas, Lynn Redgrave

These days we certainly seem to be mad about Jane … Jane Austen that is. Keira Knightly in Pride and Prejudice. Anne Hathaway in Becoming Jane. Dozens of books about Austen and her work have been released in recent months. The eternal themes of life and love in Jane Austen's novels are rising to the top of cultural consciousness once again. Yet it's hard to imagine either Austen or her fans particularly enthusiastic about The Jane Austen Book Club, the latest entry in the ever-growing Austen-themed body of work.

In Book Club six friends and acquaintances take time out of their cluttered, messy lives to read the novels of Jane Austen and gather to discuss them. There is Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) whose husband of 20+ years Daniel (Jimmy Smits) has had an affair and wants to divorce. Sylvia's adult lesbian daughter Allegra (Maggie Grace) who moves home to be with her mom during this trying period, yet still makes time for extreme sports. Sylvia's long-time single friend Jocelyn (Maria Bello), a professional dog breeder who has just lost a beloved pet. Wealthy, yet nerdy Grigg (Hugh Dancy), whom Jocelyn meets in a hotel bar and invites along to the club as a possible new love interest for Sylvia. Feisty matriarch Bernadette (Kathy Baker), a fun-loving confidant to all, married and divorced six times. And Prudie (Emily Blunt), an uptight high school French teacher, whom Bernadette meets in line at the movies.

This ensemble drama follows the complicated lives of these Austen enthusiasts, as they make their way through the works of their beloved Jane, one book per month. Unfortunately for the viewer, watching people sitting around talking about a book is not terribly appealing. Not unlike most movies that are based on video games, if you are not a part of the action (or in this case discussion), it's a bit difficult to engage with the story. The book club get-togethers become the punctuation for long interludes of individual narrative from the lives of the characters. Most of this storytelling is weak and awkwardly assembled. You really don't get to know these people and their back-story well, due to so many of them fighting for screen time. Then suddenly everything ties neatly together in the end … too neatly.

Contemporary romance films preach one message almost exclusively: the pursuit of your own happiness is the highest and most noble goal. Which if we consider for a moment, isn't really romance so much as narcissism. If you aren't happy in your situation, get out of it, no matter what problems you cause. To be fair, The Jane Austen Book Club avoids falling into this common pit. Yes, there are the self-absorbed like philandering Daniel who decides "our marriage had a good run, but let's get out now on a high note." But we see the deep pain his actions cause his wife, and eventually himself. This is not a film that glosses over what our sinful behavior does to the people we love.

Some stellar performances keep Jane from becoming a complete wash. Emily Blunt, of The Devil Wears Prada fame, hits another homerun here as the awkward Prudie, who's love of literature and deep conversation clashes with her man-boy husband's love of sports and her hippie mother's lifestyle. Hugh Dancy's earnest sci-fi buff Grigg, steals all of his scenes as the Jane Austen novice who joined the all-woman book club because he has a crush on Jocelyn.

In the end, Book Club is a sweet little romantic drama with an affable cast that doesn't really say much, do much, or have the emotional resonance to be particularly memorable. Love, and love of Jane Austen conquers all, so it would seem. Broken marriages, damaged hearts are all healed when the combatants pick up a copy of Persuasion or Emma. One wonders if perhaps the Middle East would be a nicer place if they all just started reading Jane.

(NOTE: Cautions below contain spoilers that may reveal plot points.)

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Quite a bit of social drinking. Prudie's mom smokes marijuana and gets high in one scene.
  • Language:  A handful of profanities and vulgarities scattered throughout the film. Several sexual comments.
  • Sex/Nudity:  A lot of heavy kissing. Daniel admits to an affair but nothing is shown. Prudie begins a romantic relationship with one of her 18-year-old students but it doesn't get beyond kissing. She agrees to meet him secretly for sex at a hotel but doesn't follow through with it. Allegra is shown in bed with her girlfriend(s) twice, in one scene the girlfriend is in her underwear. Allegra shown in the bath with her girlfriend (no nudity). She tells the story of a special needs boy who exposed himself to her when they were children. In one scene Grigg and Jocelyn begin kissing and undressing one another, but the scene ends before getting graphic.
  • Violence:  Accidents while participating in extreme sports twice land Allegra in the hospital.