Inoffensive and at times even charming, 'The Jane Austen Book Club' is hard to fault as a mildly pleasant and somewhat diverting piece of cinema.
Set in modern day California, it follows the lives of six members of a newly formed book club, which, it is decided, will only deal with the six novels of Jane Austen. Needless to say, some of the club's members are going through traumatic periods in their lives. Divorce, infidelity, old age, loneliness and, of course, inappropriate matches are among the themes.
All this is par for the course in films like this, but an extra dimension is supplied by the discussions of Jane Austen's novels, which provide additional context and insight into the book club members' feelings and actions. It works: the variety of interpretations each character reveals are interesting, and the film gains from them. The snobbish Prudie (Blunt), the spirited Allegra (Grace) and the elder stateswoman Bernadette (Baker) all have different ideas about Jane Austen, and there is an authenticity to the discussions that makes them interesting and watchable.
But the meat of the film is the love quadrangle - this is Jane Austen after all - containing Sylvia (Brenneman), who is newly divorced from Daniel (Smits), and the best friend of Jocelyn (Bello), who fancies Grigg (Dancy) but persists in attempting to set him up with Sylvia. Jocelyn herself, meanwhile, is distant and incapable of responding to her own emotions - except when it comes to her dogs. All this plays out in suitably melodramatic style, without ever really hitting the heights.
The sub-story involving Prudie, who is a teacher, her husband (Blucas) and a student (Zegers) takes the film into different territory - away from the shallowness and 'me, me, me' of California and towards a darker, younger and more middle American tale of illicit lust and desire. It is interesting if somewhat out of place while the young lesbian Allegra's affair with the writer Corinne (Fitz-Henley) also adds a little extra. All in all, the women's stories are well fleshed out and acted, although Jocelyn is irritatingly self-involved as the 'dog loving, not in touch with here own emotions ice queen'. Ultimately, it's a schtick which becomes a bit clichéd and wearing after a while.
The men are a different story. Dancy's turn as the romantic lead is unconvincing: his clumsy attempts to endear are all very well - coffee spilling, cycling around with a bicycle helmet and whatnot - but as the film progresses and a more 'alpha male' persona is required, he comes across more as Screech from 'Saved by the Bell' trying to do Arnold Schwarzenegger then Mr Darcy. Smits' role as the dumb husband who left could also be described as patronising.
But all told, there are worse films than 'The Jane Austen Book Club' out there. Worth a look.