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Fun With Jane

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Turning up her nose at science fiction, a female member in "The Jane Austen Book Club" argues that Austen's books, by contrast, are interested in real, complex people. An audience member might retort that movies with glass characters shouldn't throw stones. "I stick with Jane Austen and Jane Eyre," the same character declares, which is silly-sounding -- if not an embarrassing mistake. The scene is the movie in a nutshell, appealing as quirky fantasy, but just plain dumb whenever it pretends to have higher aspirations.

The movie follows the basic premise of the best-selling novel by Karen Joy Fowler, in which five women and one man form a book club to discuss all six of Jane Austen's novels over six months. Bernadette (Kathy Baker) is the feisty founder and matron of the group, which includes Sylvia (Amy Brenneman), whose husband (Jimmy Smits) recently left her; her daughter Allegra (Maggie Grace), who's a lesbian for no obvious plotting reason; Jocelyn (Maria Bello), a committed spinster who prefers dogs to men; Prudie (Emily Blunt), who's falling out of love with her own loutish husband (Marc Blucas); and Grigg (Hugh Dancy), the token man of the set, a blissfully unattached opposite of all the insensitive jerks driving these women crazy.

These six and their romantic lives are supposed to resemble characters and events in Austen's books, so you'd better be familiar with them or the source novels. The movie offers no visual clues, expecting you to find your own parallels in Prudie's flirtations with a student, or Jocelyn's stubborn rebuttal of Grigg's romantic overtures. Writer and director Robin Swicord could claim she was going for subtlety, were she not beating her audience over the head with other points (or stumbling over them herself). Entertaining, convincing scenes that surely honor their source are frequently disrupted by head-scratching events bespeaking hasty capitalization on a popular book rather than a well-thought-out adaptation.

That said, there is a thick enough cushion of playfulness to get you over the bumpier parts. Fans won't be crushed and their dates don't need to consider suicide. As one member of the book club concludes, Austen can be read on many levels and for varying reasons, simple escapism surely included. Enjoyment of "The Jane Austen Book Club" is more limited to this last reason. Unlike its character's opinion of Austen, its interest in people — real, complex or in the audience — is only on the most superficial level. (PG-13) 106 min. S



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