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Surprise—'The Jane Austen Book Club' is not as bad as it sounds.

By Richard von Busack

ROMANTIC comedies love to set lingering scenes in bookstores. Bookstores have class. Those multicolored rectangular shapes, stacked in the background, provide an arresting visual contrast to the actors. Few romantic comedies seem to have actual readers in them, though, despite how books are held and authors are name-dropped. The gross outline of The Jane Austen Book Club is female-buffet: a variety of types with whom the viewer can choose to identify, from salty purple-lady elder to dissatisfied wife. Veteran chick-flick scriptwriter Robin Swicord (Shag, Practical Magic, The Perez Family) debuts as director with this ensemble comedy set in the Sacramento area. The film is based on a novel by Davis' Karen Joy Fowler, formerly of Palo Alto and a Nebula-Award winning sci-fi writer.

A loosely knit group gathers to read all six of Austen's works, from Sense and Sensibility to Northanger Abbey. They include a solitary trainer of pedigreed dogs, Jocelyn (Maria Bello). There's an exotic and much-married older woman (Kathy Baker, barely surviving the kind of part that used to be played with a cigarette holder and a drawl). Maggie Grace plays Allegra, a young, sportsy lesbian; her mother, Sylvia (Amy Brenneman), was recently dropped hard by her husband (Jimmy Smits). Lastly, Prudie (Emily Blunt of The Devil Wears Prada) is a French teacher with finely chiseled lips. I do not mean it as a putdown to describe Blunt as prettier than Cillian Murphy. Not many people are. Prudie is the surrogate for the gifted, beautiful but full-of-herself heroine found through all of Austen. Prudie's solid sense of propriety is in danger because of a smoldering crush on a drama student at her school. And her overbooked husband (Marc Blucas of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) ignores her; he would rather go watch basketball in San Antonio than take his wife to Paris. The lone male in the group, Grigg (Hugh Dancy) represents another kind of Austen favorite: the clumsy boy whose good qualities are ignored because of pride and prejudice. Dancy may be one of the most Northern Californianistic men ever seen in a movie, a high-tech toiler so unthreatening that everyone considers him a thick-wit. It's an impression worsened by the way Grigg wanders around in the gleaming space helmet and shiny spandex livery of the long-distance bicycle rider, carrying a cell phone that chirps like R2D2.

The beginning and end are rough. The former is a TV-commercial-style montage of the aggravations of modern life. The latter, a banquet of total and undimmed happiness, reminds you why Shakespeare always included one depressed person at the end of a comedy, if only for counterpoint. Swicord doesn't let you down otherwise. The Jane Austen Book Club isn't reactionary. Allegra's gayness is a settled matter, for instance, meeting little comment. The director insists not only on the refining quality of Austen but also on the continuing relevance of the way she humbles the proud and lifts up the downgraded. Most of all, this film celebrates how Austen's work eased women into the future.

Movie Times THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB (PG-13; 90 min.), directed and written by Robin Swicord, based on the book by Karen Joy Fowler, photographed by John Toon and starring Kathy Baker and Maria Bello, opens Sep 21 at selected theaters.

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