Credit Colin Firth and his toned torso emerging from a fountain in the BBC adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice” for ushering in an era of Jane Austen fervor. Nearly 10 years after most women with a pulse realized Mark Darcy is the most eligible bachelor in fictional history comes “The Jane Austen Book Club,” a film adaptation of the popular novel by Karen Joy Fowler.
The premise of “Book Club” is refreshingly intelligent. It is a step above standard romantic dramedy fare that, for all the screenplay’s faults, delivers an enjoyable movie. Despite the film’s clichés, one has to admire the filmmakers for telling a story that attempts to avoid the easy laughs or tears that most modern-day cinematic romances effect.
“Book Club” brings together an impressive roster of actresses, including Maria Bello (“A History of Violence”), Emily Blunt (“The Devil Wears Prada”) and Amy Brenneman (TV’s “Private Practice”). Male counterparts like Hugh Dancy (“Evening”) and Jimmy Smits (“Cane”) are equally impressive, even though their screen time is limited to a few scenes.
Blunt, nearly unrecognizable with her darker, shorter hair, plays Prudie, a melancholy French teacher married to a sports-frenzied jock-type (Marc Blucas) who thinks “Austen” refers to the capitol of Texas. After her husband cancels their trip to Paris—poor Prudie has never been to France—she meets a woman at a Jane Austen movie marathon. The two connect over their love of the author, and she invites Prudie to join her and some romantically challenged friends for some literary discussions.
The crew includes Jocelyn (Bello) a lonely dog breeder, and Allegra, the recently-separated Sylvia’s lesbian daughter. Rounding out the group is Grigg (Dancy), a younger man obsessed with all things science fiction. Over the course of the year the group shares their life problems while struggling to understand how Austen would approach a modern world.
While anyone with rudimentary knowledge of Austen’s works will delight in seeing a big-screen discussion of whether Mr. Knightley lacks passion, there is a certain dampness to the screenplay that doesn’t quite bring these characters to life. Blunt, Bello, and Brenneman are strong actresses, but clunky dialogue wastes their talents. While they all do their best to make the audience sympathize with their characters, the forced lines create an awkwardness that filmgoers can’t ignore. Even so, the film is bolstered by a warm and witty connection between the women.
Blunt in particular is a stand-out, especially when expressing deep romantic frustrations with her husband. Scenes where Prudie debates entering into an extramarital affair with a hunky student shows American audiences Blunt’s artistic range. Having displayed a penchant for comedy in “Prada,” Blunt proves she can carry dramatic roles as well.
Perhaps the greatest feat comes from celebrating Austen’s work with the audience, or perhaps even introducing the novels to them. You don’t need to be an avid Austen fan to appreciate the book club’s romantic highs and lows, but don’t be surprised if a viewing of the film leads to a trip to Widener.