'Is not general incivility the very essence of love?"
OK, so Jane Austen was waaay ahead of her time. Based on a novel by Karen Joy Fowler, this well-paced, courageously hopeful jewel, "The Jane Austen Book Club," is enough to renew one's faith if not in men, then in love and -- gasp -- timeless 19th-century literature.
Can five women of divergent backgrounds and lifestyles really come together, with one very attractive gentleman, to discuss Jane Austen? No sniping (well, a little), no flirting, just book talk? They try. And like fortunate flies on the wall, we drink it all in with a touch of sneaky pleasure as they inadvertently reveal their intimate challenges and triumphs.
It is a treat to witness each one overcome their (perceived) obstacles to happiness as they apply principles from Austen novels to their own frazzled lives. After an opening montage depicting what can go wrong in modern everyday life, director Robin Swicord eases up on the squirm scenes, and introduces us to the ostensibly normal happy couple, Sylvia and Daniel (a smooth, sensible Amy Brenneman and a pleasantly earnest Jimmy Smits). Oblivious to the angst of their adventurous lesbian daughter (a dazzling Maggie Grace), the long-married pair have just one problem: Daniel is cheating.
Single and satisfied, Sylvia's best friend Jocelyn (a steady and heartbreakingly cool Maria Bello) prefers to hang out with her loyal, breeding dogs. The marvelous Emily Blunt, echoing her delightfully uptight assistant from "The Devil Wears Prada," plays Prudie, a lonely teacher with a basketball-obsessed hunk hubby (Marc Blucas), who leaves her fantasizing about her students. Serious and outspoken -- yet still oddly insecure -- she appears always ready with a pithy, sharp commentary.
Den mother to them all, Bernadette (a cheery, reassuring and splendid Kathy Baker) listens to everyone's problems and offers a wise dose of common-sense advice politely wrapped in an ego-soothing bromide. When Jocelyn accidentally charms Grigg (the soft-spoken, gorgeous and dangerously boyish Hugh Dancy), she's not interested, but -- on a whim -- invites him to join their fledgling group.
An Austen virgin, Grigg is a humble, granola-type sci-fi reader. Refreshingly down-to-earth (his car runs on doughnut grease), he offers a remarkably clear-eyed take on the novels. When the discussion of love gets nitty-gritty, he dismisses the power of the mind and advises the women to give up, because "physical attraction is an ungovernable force, like gravity." On a more realistic note, Lynn Redgrave is terrific as Prudie's garish, spaced-out mother.
Bracingly honest and yet sensitive, the women are not afraid to wrestle with the message of each novel. Sylvia pulls no punches and offers bittersweet praise: "Austen has a way of making us forget that most marriages end in divorce." She reminds her less skeptical companions (while of course gazing secretly at Prudie) of the lesson from Mansfield Park: "A marriage is only as strong as its weakest partner."
While Bernadette blithely proclaims: "I've been married six times. You're always happy at first. It's how you feel at the end that counts." And after Prudie sums up Austen romance as "a parade of bad marriages," Grigg complains, "Women never fall for the nice guy."
While a true cynic might doubt the heartwarmingly positive bonds, others will overlook the few false notes of forgiveness. Simply revel in the overwhelming optimism. Jocelyn warns, "Reading Austen is a freaking minefield." Indeed, and Swicord's screenplay has struck gold.