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Arts & Culture

The Jane Austen Book Club

In the film, Bernadette (Kathy Baker) cooks up the book club idea as a means of distracting Jocelyn (Maria Bello) from the recent death of her dog. But it quickly turns out that everyone needs a little distraction. Sylvia (Amy Brennemen) has just been dumped by her husband (Jimmy Smits); Prudie (Emily Blunt) has just discovered that her husband (Marc Blucas) cancelled their Paris trip so he can take a client to the NBA playoffs; and Allegra (Maggie Grace), Sylvia's daughter, is trying to cope with her parents' separation. Oh and then there's Grigg (Hugh Dancy), a young man that Jocelyn impulsively invited into the club to round out the group.

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Emily Blunt considers her options in The Jane Austen Book Club (Sony Pictures)

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The tag line for the film says that "you don't have to know the books to be in the club." That's a smart approach if you're the one marketing the film and don't want to leave anyone out. But unfortunately that also seems to be the approach of filmmaker Robin Swicord. If knowledge of the novels is not necessary, then you begin to wonder, what's the point? Maybe Swicord and company feel that no knowledge is necessary because they will enlighten you. But they only provide a cursory and superficial introduction to Austen's work, with the parallels between Austen's 19th century England and the 21st century California women bluntly pointed out. In fact, subtlety is something the film definitely lacks. Swicord feels the need to hit every point home to insure that we do not miss any connections or insights. This means that characters are constantly telling us how their lives are mirroring those of Austen's characters. This also plays out in simple dialogue exchanges. When Grigg chastises Jocelyn, who happens to be a dog breeder, for ordering him around, he has to add that that's why she doesn't have a relationship with a man because she simply wants to be obeyed. It's like Swicord ordering the audience to sit, stay and think about that.

The Jane Austen Book Club is essentially a chick flick that aspires to have a brain but ends up being more cute than clever, more cliched than inspired. The film lacks the thing that Austen does so well in her books -- the ability to examine a small social clique with a sharply observant eye, a clear ironic wit and an insider's full knowledge of how this social unit works. But Swicord offers warm and fuzzy romantic comedy rather than an insightful satiric take on modern relationships. One of the film's main failings is that it paints the two husbands as such dogs in the early scenes that we question the intelligence of the women when they consider taking their spouses back. Then the two single men the film serves up -- Grigg and Prudie's student Trey (Kevin Zegers) -- are such idealized, gorgeous and sensitive men that you can't understand why the women don't scoop these guys up and count their blessings. Swicord fails to invest the men with enough depth to make them function as more than plot devices to cause the female characters joy or suffering. Grigg, who's supposed to be a nerdy techie with a love for science fiction is forced to make a strained analogy between Star Wars and Austen, and you sense that neither Swicord nor Fowler is very familiar with either Star Wars or Grigg's world.

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Kathy Baker as Bernadette in The Jane Austen Book Club (Sony Pictures)

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Swicord has adapted both a period classic, Little Women and a modern novel Memoirs of a Geisha to the screen. But neither displayed much skill for finding a cinematic way to bring these works of literature to the screen. For The Jane Austen Book Club, Swicord serves as both writer and director. As a director, she works well with a talented cast. Actresses such as Baker, Blunt and Bello are always engaging but they seem smarter than the material in this case. And watching Brenneman's Sylvia suffer a marital break up made me long for her much richer and more complex performance in Neil La Bute's Your Friends and Neighbors , in which her character went through a similar emotional trauma but with less cliched results.

The Jane Austen Book Club (rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, sexual content, brief strong language and some drug use) seemed to please the crowd at the KPBS Film Club screening. But when a film promises to incorporate the delightful and insightful works of Jane Austen into it's story, I was just expecting so much more.

Companion viewing: Emma, Sense and Sensibility, Clueless, Your Friends and Neighbors -----