I have a simple test I use to judge any good chick-flick: Would I want to spend an afternoon at Starbucks with its main characters, sipping lattes and discussing Jane Austen? Seriously, likable protagonists are all that make most precious, self-absorbed weepies bearable, and daydreaming about imaginary conversations with imaginary people has gotten me through many a review screening. So the irony of using my chick-flick test on 'The Jane Austen Book Club' was not lost on me -- what an perfectly ideal match this was going to be! A modern romantic comedy about a multi-generational group of women, all Jane Austen lovers, sitting with me for two hours, discussing our favorite author? Fire up the cappuccino machine, baby!
My enthusiasm lasted for about the first fifteen minutes. What an utterly insufferable, thoroughly unbearable mawk-fest 'The Jane Austen Book Club' turns out to be. This is the kind of movie where all of the characters are so whiny, selfish, and generally unpleasant that you wish it was really a horror movie, so a masked maniac could appear and begin offing them, one by one. I'm already writing my own sequel -- 'The Stephen King Book Club.'
Adapted from the more impressionistic novel by Karen Joy Fowler, the film version takes an intriguing concept and dulls all the rough edges, creating the equivalent of a dumbed-down TV movie. The concept remains the same -- an interconnecting tale of five women and one man (who is -- shockingly -- not gay), all suffering through relationship woes, who decide to form their own monthly Jane Austen book club to help them get through their troubles. Yes, this movie really is that obvious, that contrived, and that shameless in milking the author's six classic novels in the worst kind of post-modern grave-robbing.
See if you can spot the Austen novels that have been cribbed. First there's Jocelyn (Maria Bello), a supposedly happily-unmarried dog owner who is playing cupid with two other members of the club, the newly-divorced Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) and the cheerful Austen-newbie Grigg (Hugh Dancy), but of course Jocelyn is repressing her own attraction to the young suitor (shades of "Emma," perhaps?) Then there is Prudie (Emily Blunt), aka Anne from "Persuasion," though separated from her Captain Wentworth not by class but by sports of all things -- he's basketball-loving jock while she's a meek bookworm -- she strikes up an affair with a randy high schooler (Kevin Zegers). Finally, there's Allegra (Maggie Grace, getting the short thrift in terms of screen time), the lesbian daughter of Sylvia, who seems to be channeling a little bit of "Pride & Prejudice" with her attempts to carve out a meaningful relationship in a world of stealth homophobia.
I'm not sure what I hated the most about 'The Jane Austen Book Club.' Perhaps it was the endless name-dropping and references to famous characters in Austen's books, done in that obnoxious, self-serving way in which you overhear insecure blowhards discussing fine art at museums? Or the bizarre use of multiple-perspective narration, so we are allowed to get "inside the heads" of all the characters in the most coy and obvious way imaginable? Or maybe it was the way each "quirky" character has a basic romantic predicament that mirrors the plot of a famous Austen novel? These narrative conceits are oh-so-cute, but oh-so-not-clever. This is the kind of obvious, heavy-handed screenwriting they teach you to avoid in film school. Even Oprah would gag.
'The Jane Austen Book Club' is also a visually clunky affair. Unlike films that transcend the dreaded "chick-flick" tag, such as 'The Devil Wears Prada' and 'Bridget Jones's Diary,' there is little sense of flair or pizzazz to the photography or editing. Granted, the nature of the material is akin to watching a bunch of people at an AA meeting (I lost count of the number of scenes of characters siting in chairs, pontificating about literature), but even director Robin Swicord's directorial choices (mostly involving placing her good-looking actors in front of good-looking backdrops) do little to stir the imagination. There just isn't any real creative spark here.
Is there anything to recommend about 'The Jane Austen Book Club?' Yes -- Emily Blunt. This underrated, evolving actress first came to the attention of American audiences with her scene-stealing turn in 'The Devil Wears Prada,' and she again steals every scene here. She is the only one in the ensemble who is able to elevate her one-dimensional character to something recognizable and relatable, and she becomes the film's de facto lead by sheer force of her charisma. Sadly, however, even Blunt can't save a film that never comes to life on its own. You're better off going to your local library and picking up an Austen novel than sitting through 'The Jane Austen Book Club.'
Sony presents 'The Jane Austen Book Club' in 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 video, framed at 1.85:1. Unfortunately, I wasn't a fan of the weird, washed-out look of the transfer, and I'd say this is one of the weakest efforts from Sony I've seen in a while.
Right off the bat, contrast just doesn't look right. The high end of the scale is too dull, and the mid-range is stretched out, leaving the whole affair is as flat as styrofoam. Colors are likewise either bland, or slightly overpumped (particularly fleshtones), so the transfer somehow manages to look both over- and under-saturated (quite an accomplishment). Detail and depth to the image are simply mediocre, at least for a new release. The image never boasts the kind of visible fine texture of the best high-def. There is also a bit of noise present here or there (though no major artifacts). At least the source is pristine, but that's about the best I can say about this one. A disappointment.
'The Jane Austen Book Club' features Dolby TrueHD tracks in English and French (both 48kHz/24-bit), plus Spanish, Portuguese and Thai Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround dubs (448kbps). Unfortunately, the TrueHD audio is little better than the weak video. I'm not superstitious, but is 'The Jane Austen Book Club' cursed!?
The big culprit is the lousy volume levels on the dialogue. I had to jack up the volume just to hear much of the mumbly voices, which meant that whenever one of the annoying lite-pop/rock songs jumped on the soundtrack, I felt as if I was being aurally beaten. It's really irritating. The rest of the presentation is likewise uninspired. Surround use is meager at best, with little activity in the rears aside from a little score bleed but not much else. Dynamics are nothing to write home about (granted, this is a chick-flick), with not much oomph to highs and lows, nor much in the way of noticeable subwoofer action. Had the dialogue levels at least been normalized I could have tolerated the bland sound design, but combined, 'The Jane Austen Book Club' is hardly a sonic delight.
For a film that was not a box office hit, 'The Jane Austen Book Club' gets a pretty extensive batch of supplements. Sony has not skimped on the features here in terms of quantity, so fans of the movie should be pleased. (All of the video-based extras are presented in 480p/i/MPEG-2 video only. Subtitle options on all of the extras [including the audio commentary] are Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, and Thai.)
'The Jane Austen Book Club' is a film whose title says it all -- it's just a bunch of annoying characters sitting around and discussing famous literature, all the while whining about their own vapid lives. The whole thing just made me want to turn off the Blu-ray player and go read a Jane Austen novel. This disc is pretty marginal as well, with disappointing video and audio. At least the supplements are fairly extensive for this type of release, but it's not enough to really recommend 'The Jane Austen Book Club.' Rent this one only if you're a real glutton for chick-flick punishment.