ZERO STARS/**** Image B Sound B- Extras D
starring Kathy Baker, Maria Bello, Marc Blucas, Lynn Redgrave
screenplay by Robin Swicord, based on the novel by Karen Joy Fowler
directed by Robin Swicord
by Walter Chaw I hate smug little pieces of masturbatory treacle like Robin Swicord's The Jane Austen Book Club, bits of piffle strutting around like peacocks on a parade ground, secure in the knowledge that it's pretentious in just the right way for the only demographic that it cares about at all. What kills me is that the idiots thronging to shit like this are the same ones who criticize "mainstream" Hollywood for its propensity to squeeze out cookie-cutter nuggets of worthless effluvium for the slavering approval of teenage boys. I wonder if young men and middle-aged women (the kind who watch "The View" and join Oprah's Book Club) aren't, in fact, natural ideological enemies: the former unaware of the evil stereotypes perpetrated by their favoured entertainment, the latter, you know, likewise. In our age of missing information, it makes perfect sense that mouth-breathing pundits find favourable spawning conditions. And in any age, it makes perfect sense that the stupid ones seek them out.
Jane Austen wrote six novels and The Jane Austen Book Club is about six people who meet to discuss them over the course of six months. 666. Coincidence? I think not. Bernadette (Kathy Baker, well into the muumuu-period of her career) starts the club, the unexpected side effect of which is that every one of the six members discovers something in Austen's books to apply to their own relationships in this breached birth of a movie that, you guessed it, unfolds over the course of six cutesy episodes. Ebert compares hyphenate Swicord's habit of joining scenes with shots of our sextet reading books to Ozu's "pillow shots," which makes me want to throw up and wonder how a caesura can be compared to an inert interstitial with no hint of irony. Saying that a moving picture of someone reading a book to light, Victorian-humping music is the same as taking a contemplative breath is facile, feckless self-justification. No problem liking perverse trash--the real problem is selling said trash as spun gold. The Jane Austen Book Club is badly-written, badly-conceived, jaw-droppingly directed, and insufferably pleased with itself. Were it a person, it would be that woman in the paisley pantsuit who stands up at every PTA meeting with something to say about her Seven Sisters bumper-sticker education. It's the sense of entitlement that so offends; invoking the name of Austen--one of melancholy British Romanticism's most melancholy artists--does not give the film or its characters similar complexity and depth. Austen never wrote a happy novel, though she only wrote happy endings. The Jane Austen Book Club is a dishonourable piece of cheery nonsense and its female characters are vessels waiting to be filled by the men of their dreams.
Anyway, Bernadette starts this club--which is composed of four other spinster stereotypes--to help sissy Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) get over her philandering husband (Jimmy Smits). What better to soothe the ache of a dead relationship than the work of a novelist who herself never married and wrote near-identical books about fumbling love? Genius. Start the Ken Kesey Book Club for Al-Anon members! Open with a series of hilarious shots of random folks who stop traffic with their clumsiness and can't get a candy bar out of a vending machine (oh, Life, you rapscallion!) and go to our first flaccid punchline as rigid/frigid Jocelyn (the neither rigid nor frigid Mario Bello) mourns the passing of a prize pooch while her alleged friends roll their eyes and her alleged director inserts a wah-wah soundtrack cue. If the movie doesn't respect its characters, why should we? Jocelyn, it seems, really needs to read Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness--or so thinks lovable doofus Grigg (Hugh Dancy), the only male of the group. He's granted a prize asshole moment all his own when he invites the crew over to his dork mansion and scares the shit out of them with his expensive Halloween decorations. Funny? Not in the slightest--in fact, it's irritating and puzzling in equal measure: why would Jocelyn ever, even in her weakest moments, regard this arrested Richie Rich as the man of her dreams? Why would anyone? It's not that his cell phone rings with R2-D2's bleeps and gurgles, it's that George Lucas allowed them to use said bleeps and gurgles that provides the most insight into this film's childishness. Look: It's got Lucas's stamp of romantic approval--what more warning do you need?
Jocelyn's daughter Allegra (Maggie Grace) is a lesbian who falls for a lesbian doctor, while French teacher Prudie (Emily Blunt) is contemplating cheating on her rah-rah jughead husband (Marc Blucas) with one of her sexy high-school students. At the moment of truth, with just a line of traffic separating her from a soulful fucking at the hands of a sweaty teenager, the film goes L.A. Story on us and offers a crossing light asking WWJD? (Jane, naturally, being this movie's Jesus.) "At least," one thinks to one's self, "it's not another motherfucking dog reaction shot." With such stunning moments of creativity as setting a large swatch of the picture in a Starbucks, each gravid moment of the picture, rich with obvious links to Austen and underscored by deadening exposition, is then undermined by elfin cutaways and lame slapstick. Exhibit one of the terminally fatuous and un-witty working hard at self-deprecation is the pan to a toy robot as Grigg and Jocelyn are about to finally get busy. I mean, seriously, you try to take it for what it is when a filmmaker cuts to curtains or a fan, but you look at this toy and the message is that rather than witness the consummation of a relationship we care about a little because the actors are good at their jobs, let's instead look at this adorable plaything that, ha ha, Grigg owns, and ha ha isn't that stupid?
Yeah, it's stupid. It's insulting and disrespectful, and any natural instinct one might have to feel embarrassed for The Jane Austen Book Club is cleverly dismantled by Swicord, who appears to be embarrassed enough for everyone. You've convinced me: your movie's ridiculous--free of seriousness and any concern for human connection, it's an exercise in adorable that wants desperately to be liked and, sure, taken advantage of, if that's what it takes. It's a film that doesn't protect its characters, making it an animal that fits in oddly with the nihilistic films of 2007 while illustrating the point pretty eloquently that you shouldn't play innate hopelessness for twee mirth.
In case one is so inclined as to give the pic a benefit of a doubt, a quick listen to its obscene DVD commentary track handily dismantles any feelings of generosity. The entire thing, I mean it, is trainspotting cameos from friends of Swicord (her daughter cameos as Hand Taking Ticket and the like) interposed with Swicord speaking endlessly about how wonderful it all is and how great everything was. Editor Maryann Brandon, producer Julie Lynn, and stars Dancy and Grace join her--then Blucas "crashes" the party and cracks uncomfortable gay jokes directed at himself. Low point? That's a toughie. I'd probably say it's when they note that a parking stub Grace pulls early on says "Grace Period" on it and Swicord, demurely, self-deprecates that this moment of supreme wit was serendipitous, as the Production Designer wasn't supervising this second-unit bullshit. Whoo boy.
"Behind the Scenes" (19 mins.) is a B-roll/junket monstrosity that marvels that this shambling beast was done in "only" thirty days and how privileged everyone is to be working with everyone else. Meanwhile, Bello--who by this point had appeared in films for David Cronenberg, Paul Schrader, John Sayles, and Oliver Stone--describes Swicord as "one of the best directors that I've ever worked with." Nigger, please. "The Life of Jane Austen" (22 mins.) is a succinct, admirably complete little introduction to the author while "The Book Club Deconstructed" (12 mins.) draws parallels between Austen's characters and their analogs in the picture. Pointless? At least. "Walking the Red Carpet" (3 mins.) is exactly as irritating and onanistic as you'd imagine. Seven deleted scenes (7 mins.) include a semi-hot lesbian kiss, just in case anyone's counting. The Blu-ray full-court press as well as trailers for My Kid Could Paint That, Jimmy Carter Man From Plains, Across The Universe, Blonde Ambition, Comanche Moon, Little Women, My Mom's New Boyfriend, Persepolis, and Saawariya round out the infernal concoction. The movie itself looks okay in its 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer--though the image is not that sharp and black levels seem unnecessarily soft and silty--and sounds fine, too, the DD 5.1 audio never presenting much opportunity to fuck up. Originally published: April 15, 2008.