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The Jane Austen Book Club

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Sands and sensibility: Kathy Baker, Mario Bello and Amy Brenneman
  • Sands and sensibility: Kathy Baker, Mario Bello and Amy Brenneman

Having been born in the 18th century, to a reputable family of sufficient means, and having received her education from the most adequate of teachers, Miss Jane Austen never had to worry about security wands that scanned her when she entered a building, or ATM machines that ate her card.

And yet, two centuries after her untimely passing, not a single thing happens to people today that didn't also happen, in one way or another, to the inhabitants of her six novels.

The Jane Austen Book Club brings together five contemporary women and a charming interloper for monthly discussions of the author's books that they hope will at best stimulate and perhaps even mend their variously tattered lives. And while, yes, it's a chick flick (and then some), it's also surprisingly entertaining, as though you'd genuinely enjoyed a Jane Austen novel after someone forced you to read it.

The oldest member of the club, Bernadette (Kathy Baker), is a jovial chatterbox who makes no apologies for having had six husbands (so far). Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) has just lost her husband (Jimmy Smits) to another woman. Their daughter is a daredevil lesbian who skydives and climbs rocks. Jocelyn (Maria Bello) is single and owns dogs ('nuff said), and Prudie (Emily Blunt) is a timid French teacher who's never been to France, thanks to her neo-primitive businessman husband (Marc Blucas), who sincerely doesn't get what he's doing wrong.

And then there's the shy, adorable, environmentally conscious bicyclist Grigg (Hugh Dancy), who made a fortune in technology, and whom Jocelyn meets by chance and invites to join the club. He's never read Austen -- he recommends that she try Ursula Le Guin -- but he's smitten enough with Jocelyn to give it all he's got.

This is writer/director Robin Swicord's first feature film after spending two decades as a screenwriter. (Practical Magic adorns her résumé.) Her script for Jane Austen Book Club, adapted from a novel, gives you just enough of Austen to follow along if you haven't read the books, and she paces her movie briskly enough, taking it to a coda of happy endings that almost seem to slyly parody Austen's own rosy adieus.

For a number of reasons, none of them revolutionary, The Jane Austen Book Club is a few cuts above other cozies of its ilk, most of which belong (barely) on TV. Sure, these women have familiar troubles, but they're far from being on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Swicord reigns in her uniformly outstanding actors (another plus), so there isn't a shrill moment in the movie, a rarity in the waiting-to-exhale genre, and very few intense moments that don't earn their dramatic effect. The humor is more slice of life than either of the extremes ("gentle" or "wacky"), and the life lessons all come from Austen, who, like Woody Allen (at least for me), has an insight or an epigram for everything.

Starts Fri., Oct. 5.

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