The Jane Austen Book Club is pitched as The First Wives Club for coffeehouse intellectuals. But even though—like this movie’s “Neanderthal” male characters—I’ve never read a word of Austen, I feel confident in saying that it has more in common with your average feminist-angst chick flick than Mansfield Park. Failed by their sexual relationships, five women form a book club to find solace in their favorite English novelist. Writer-director Robin Swicord pretends the complex psychology of great fiction, but her women are only as deep as their shrill idiosyncrasies: Bernadette (Kathy Baker), the many-times divorced Mother of the Pack, struts around in a crazy quilted coat and big jewelry; Jocelyn (Maria Bello) swears off long-term relationships entirely to live with her dogs in the country; her best friend Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) struggles to separate herself from a cheating husband she still loves; Prudie (Emily Blunt), a snooty French teacher, disdains her oaf of a spouse; and then, of course, there’s Sylvia’s daughter Allegra (Maggie Grace), who is, well, a lesbian.
The self-deluded, Lifetime fantasy of Swicord’s film can be felt from the outset: Bernadette conceives of the book club solely as a way to get Sylvia’s mind off her impending divorce (“All-Jane-Austen-all-the-time. It’s the perfect antidote!”). Meanwhile, Jocelyn invites Hugh Dancy’s geeky-hot Grigg to join in, hoping he will attract the attention of Sylvia’s seeking eyes. But Swicord doesn’t deign to understand how these men hold such a powerful grip over their female counterparts. They are satellites orbiting Swicord’s universe, granted entry only when they’ve submitted to her Austen-coded conception of courtship and sexuality. Sylvia’s husband re-earns her good graces after writing a letter straight out of Pride and Prejudice, while Prudie and her man mend ties reciting Persuasion to each other at night.
Each character’s story conveniently dovetails with an Austen novel, as they all superficially peck away at the parallels between their own woes and those of characters in the books. Using Austen makes it easy for Swicord to pass her ploy off as high-culture, but she pulls from the author’s work only the most simple-minded lessons; as Prudie is about to cheat on her husband, a crosswalk sign begs Swicord’s ultimate question, “What would Jane do?” As a romantic comedy, The Jane Austen Book Club is notable only for its corny—almost quaint—moralism, providing characters and audiences alike with an Austen-mandated guide to the dating world. To echo one character’s reasonable question: “What is this, a rulebook?”