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The Jane Austen Book Club

Charmer could become a sleeper hit if allowed to build word of mouth and screen count.

With:
Bernadette - Kathy Baker Jocelyn - Maria Bello Prudie - Emily Blunt Sylvia - Amy Brenneman Grigg - Hugh Dancy Allegra - Maggie Grace Sky - Lynn Redgrave Daniel - Jimmy Smits Dean - Marc Blucas Trey - Kevin Zegers Corinne - Parisa Fitz-Henley Samantha - Gwedoline Yeo Cat - Nancy Travis

One character in “The Jane Austen Book Club” describes the author’s novels as chick-lit that most men would enjoy if they gave it a chance; similarly, the film is a “chick flick” guys might well grok if they could be roped in. Sure, there are no CGI or explosions, but it’s hard not to become engrossed in the seriocomic relationship tangles writer-director Robin Swicord deftly adapts from Karen Joy Fowler’s bestselling 2004 novel. Lacking major drawing-card thesps, this polished charmer could become a sleeper hit if allowed to slowly build word of mouth and screen count.

Swicord, a veteran scenarist best known for prior lit adaptations (“Little Women,” “Matilda,” “Memoirs of a Geisha”), makes her directorial debut here.

There’s nothing particularly stylish about “Book Club,” which won’t lose much in translation to the smallscreen. But it’s expert in matters more crucial to the source material: managing a highly eventful narrative in brisk terms without seeming rushed; drawing moderately complex characters and conflicted relationships with economy and feeling. In those regards and others, the pic is much more satisfying than recent femme-centric adaptations “The Nanny Diaries” or “Evening,” let alone the pandering, formulaic likes of “Because I Told You So.”

Set in Sacramento, Calif., tale starts out with various partnerships coming to an end, or at least facing trouble. Dog breeder Jocelyn (Maria Bello) stages a funeral complete with priest and cellist for her Rhodesian Ridgeback. Their children now grown, Daniel (Jimmy Smits) informs horrified spouse Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) that “there’s a logic to us quittingwhile we’re ahead,” especially since he’s been having an affair with a law firm co-worker. High school French teacher Prudie (Emily Blunt) is crushed when jockish husband Dean (Marc Blucas) casually announces their planned Paris vacation has been preempted by a biz trip.

Prudie is found sobbing outside a revival screening of Patricia Rozema’s 1999 “Mansfield Park,” which she decries as distorting the novel past recognition. Her distress and ample Austen knowledge attract motherly if bossy interest from Jocelyn and Sylvia’s older friend Bernadette (Kathy Baker), a garrulous survivor of six divorces.

The idea of a women’s book club is hatched, dedicated solely to Austen’s six novels, with each member assigned special study of one. Sylvia’s sporty lesbian daughter Allegra (Maggie Grace) and rich, young software geek Grigg (Hugh Dancy) fill out the group.

Allegra falls for aspiring fiction writer Corinne (Parisa Fitz-Henley), a path, it turns out, was best not taken. Prudie considers cheating on the husband she’s already unhappy with, while enduring a visit from the free-spirited hippie mother (Lynn Redgrave) whose irresponsibility left her with major trust issues. And just when Sylvia begins recovering from Daniel’s departure, he has second thoughts.

Chronological narrative is chaptered by titles noting the month and its particular book club title, which protags interpret in terms of their current emotional travails. It’s Fowler’s savvy conceit that Austen’s delightfully insightful prose can be a lightning rod for whatever a reader of any era wants or needs to discover.

Familiarity with the books (or their film adaptations) isn’t required to enjoy “Club,” though. While there are occasional forced notes — cute canine reaction shots or a wrap that’s awfully neat for so many messy lives — Swicord’s direction proves as accomplished as her script at handling an incident-packed story with ease, capturing humor and drama sans cheap laughs or tearjerking.

Cast is first-rate all around, unafraid to play up the annoying, insensitive or self-pitying aspects of their nonetheless likeable characters. An unrecognizably severe Blunt almost makes Prudie too much of a pill, though we understand how she got that way once Redgrave’s mother makes her memorably obnoxious appearance. On the opposite end of the personality scale, Dancy radiates charm as the sheepishly smitten Grigg.

Slickly handled in all departments, the production has a warm, if conventional, look.

The Jane Austen Book Club

Production: A Sony Pictures Classics release of a John Calley/Robin Swicord production in association with Mockingbird Pictures. Produced by Calley, Julie Lynn, Diana Napper. Executive producer, Marshall Rose. Co-producer, Kelly Thomas. Directed, written by Robin Swicord, based on the novel by Karen Joy Fowler.

Crew: Camera (color), John Toon; editor, Maryann Brandon; music, Aaron Zigman; music supervisor, Barklie Griggs; production designer, Rusty Smith; art director, Sebastian Schroder; set decorator, Meg Everist; costume designer, Johnetta Boone; sound (Dolby Digital), Peter Devlin; assistant director, Vincent Lascoumbes; casting, Deborah Aquila, Tricia Wood, Jennifer Smith. Reviewed at Variety Club screening room, San Francisco, Aug. 17, 2007. (In Toronto Film Festival -- Gala Presentations.) MPAA rating: PG-13. Running time: 106 MIN.

With: Bernadette - Kathy Baker Jocelyn - Maria Bello Prudie - Emily Blunt Sylvia - Amy Brenneman Grigg - Hugh Dancy Allegra - Maggie Grace Sky - Lynn Redgrave Daniel - Jimmy Smits Dean - Marc Blucas Trey - Kevin Zegers Corinne - Parisa Fitz-Henley Samantha - Gwedoline Yeo Cat - Nancy Travis

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