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People Call It A Chick Flick

August 10th, 2009 · 4 Comments

Jane Austen Book Club, 2007, poster Jane Austen Book Club, 2007, DVD

The Jane Austen Book Club (2007)
Screenplay by Robin Swicord, based on the novel by Karen Joy Fowler
Directed by Robin Swicord
Produced by John Calley Productions/ Mockingbird Pictures
Running time: 106 minutes

By Joe Valdez

So, What’s This About?

In the urban trappings of Sacramento, mourners convene for the funeral of a hound dog. Jocelyn (Maria Bello) is a dog breeder whose affections have been directed toward her obedient canine companions. Her childhood friend Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) has taken a 20-year marriage to Daniel (Jimmy Smits) for granted until he notifies her that he’s leaving her for another woman. Their thrill seeking, college aged daughter Allegra (Maggie Grace) is a lesbian, while Bernadette (Kathy Baker) is a spirited yoga practitioner with six ex-husbands. While in line at a Jane Austen film festival, Bernadette meets a prissy high school English teacher named Trudie (Emily Blunt).

After Trudie commiserates the sad state of her marriage to the sports loving Dean (Marc Blucas), Bernadette hits upon the idea of a book club in which each of the six members will present a different novel by Jane Austen. Jocelyn meets a goofy young sci-fi enthusiast named Grigg (Hugh Dancy) and invites him to join, hoping to tie Sylvia with a new mate but oblivious that Grigg is clearly more interested in her. Trudie flirts with plunging herself into an affair with one of her students (Kevin Zegers) while each member of the book club interprets Austen through whatever obstacles they’re struggling to overcome in their personal lives.

Jane Austen Book Club, 2007, Maggie Grace, Amy Brenneman, Kathy Baker, Maria Bello

Who Made It?
A native of Bloomington, Indiana, Karen Joy Fowler graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1972 with a bachelor of arts in political science and earned her masters in that field from UC Davis in 1974. Her first two novels — Sarah Canary (1991) and The Sweetheart Season (1996) — fused science fiction or fantasy with 19th century history, but it was the 2004 publication of a contemporary romantic comedy titled The Jane Austen Book Club that put Fowler on The New York Times Bestseller List, for 13 weeks. That same year, veteran producer John Calley optioned the film rights and turned to one of his longtime beneficiaries to adapt a screenplay and direct.

Robin Swicord grew up in the rural Gulf Coast of Florida. She studied English and theatre arts at Florida State University, where she also started writing and directing short films. This lead to a career producing educational films in New York City, where a play Swicord authored titled Last Days At The Dixie Girl Café was produced off-Broadway in 1979. Her original screenplay Shag was produced in 1989 starring Bridget Fonda, Annabeth Gish and Phoebe Cates. From there, Swicord became one of the top screenwriters in the film industry, adapting Little Women (1994), The Perez Family (1995), Practical Magic (1998) and Memoirs of a Geisha (2005). The Jane Austen Book Club is her directorial debut.

Jane Austen Book Club, 2007, Hugh Dancy, Maria Bello

How’d They Do It?
Karen Joy Fowler recalled the genesis of her fourth novel by stating, “The idea for The Jane Austen Book Club came to me when I was in the middle of another project. In 2000, I started planning to write a book about chimps and sign language and psychologists, set in the 1950s. I’m still very interested and excited about it, but it keeps getting shunted aside. I had done a lot of the research on it, and then I went to Book Passage to hear Carter Scholz read from his novel Radiance. At the reading, I got this lightning flash idea for The Jane Austen Book Club, so I set the chimp book aside and wrote it — by my own pitiful standards — pretty quickly (in about a year). That’s the fastest I’ve ever written a book.”

By comparison, Robin Swicord spent a decade trying to direct a feature film. Eric Bogosian’s adaptation of Thing of Beauty: The Tragedy of Supermodel Gia was put into turnaround when Paramount decided there were no stars young enough to open it. Swicord then spent six years trying to get a spec script she’d written titled The Mermaid Singing made. Jessica Lange, Evan Rachel Wood, Neve Campbell and Dougary Scott all agreed to star with Swicord set to shoot in Ireland using tax credits, but financing fell through. Swicord lamented, “I’m not a known director. I feel that if the movie had been about a young grandfather back in the U.S. going back to Ireland to claim his lost grandchild, the movie would have been made.”

Jane Austen Book Club, 2007, Emily Blunt

Swicord turned to a project she’d been talking to Amy Pascal — chairman of Sony Pictures — about writing and directing for 15 years. “I had been at work on another project called The Jane Prize, which is about a family of Jane Austen scholars. I had spent a number of years just reading Austen, the letters, biographies, downloading academic treatises on Jane Austen — kind of preparing to write that.” Swicord had a blinking green light to start shooting in the fall of 2006, but The Jane Prize script found its way to John Calley, former CEO and president of Sony and a longtime supporter of the screenwriter.

Calley had optioned The Jane Austen Book Club. Swicord recalled, “I wanted to do this film — I would say that the strongest reason is that I love to read the novels of Jane Austen. This film, thematically, I was very interested in because I have been thinking a lot about how fractured our lives are and how difficult it is. We talked about how hard it is to achieve community when people live away from their families, and we commute in our cars and we’re isolated and so forth. But here we are in the middle of a time when we are ostensibly the most connected we’ve ever been by cell phones and the Internet. And what I felt was that it was a unique opportunity to make a film about how people overcome that.”

Jane Austen Book Club, 2007, Amy Brenneman, Jimmy Smits

In her adaptation, Swicord made a number of drastic changes to Fowler’s bestseller. She swapped out different Jane Austen novels to be read by different characters in order to fit the narrative she had in mind. She admitted, “I saw different things in the novels. It was a challenge to move from something that had the slightest narrative thread connecting the stories to creating something with enough narrative power to actually be dramatic.” Swicord expanded the role of the group’s token male and realized the fantasies Prudie develops for a teenage student. The film version omitted the numerous flashbacks that colored Fowler’s novel.

When Swicord’s script was ready, Calley phoned Sony Classics co-presidents Tom Bernard and Michael Barker and won an agreement from the studio to finance and distribute The Jane Austen Book Club. Calley then contacted Maria Bello, who expressed interest in starring. Swicord recalled, “As the cast began to shape up, it became apparent that there was just a very strong ensemble that we were going for and we didn’t need to worry about whether or not, you know, Meryl Streep or Julia Roberts or you know, Big Movie Name needed to be in the film, that as long as we had a really strong ensemble of actors, I could pretty much cast who I wanted. And as soon as we had arrived at that point in time, I called up Amy Brenneman and said, ‘I want you to play Sylvia.’”

Jane Austen Book Club, 2007, Hugh Dancy, Amy Brenneman

With a budget of just under $6 million, The Jane Austen Book Club was slated to begin shooting November 2006 in Los Angeles, covering 37 locations in 30 days. Swicord had been given just six weeks of prep time, but adequate rehearsal made all the difference. Swicord recalled, “I watched where the dialogue ran smoothly, and where actors hesitated or felt awkward, or when they seemed to need a line or a movement, and I’d pick up those cues and make adjustments. Even after we started shooting 12-hour days, I would always set aside an hour for rehearsal in the morning, knowing that we’d make up the time in richer performances and fewer takes.”

To serve as director of photography, Swicord picked Australian cinematographer John Toon. “I wanted the look of the film to be very real — very ‘here’s how we live now,’ just as Jane Austen gave us such a detailed portrait of how people lived day-to-day in her time. I admired John’s camera technique in Glory Road and Sylvia, because he draws the viewer in to feel like you’re right there, an immediate observer. He invented a camera rigging that’s just a bit looser, more like human movement — barely noticeable, not hand-held-jiggly, but not Steadicam-smooth either. He uses a lot of natural light, which strengthens that sense of immediacy.”

Jane Austen Book Club, 2007, Maria Bello, Hugh Dancy

Once critics took a look, The Jane Austen Book Club met with qualified endorsements. Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun Times: “The movie is a celebration of reading, and oddly enough that works, even though there is nothing cinematic about a shot of a woman (or the club’s one male member) reading a book.” Carina Chocano, The Los Angeles Times: “Capably, if not exactly artfully directed … Book Club is a widget carefully engineered to comfort, console and sell like hot cakes since it was but a gleam in the author’s eye, and Swicord doesn’t mess with the formula.” Stephen Holden, The New York Times: “Such a well-acted, literate adaptation of Karen Joy Fowler’s 2004 best seller that your impulse is to forgive it for being the formulaic, feel-good chick flick that it is.”

Opening September 2007 in the United States, The Jane Austen Book Club kept a low profile at the box office. It never expanded beyond 1,200 U.S. theaters, grossing $3.5 million domestically and $3.5 million overseas. Swicord shrugged off suggestions that her film had limited appeal. “I think that anytime a woman makes a movie with a female protagonist, you run the risk of having people call it a chick flick. It’s just a way of marginalizing women. But in this particular case, I didn’t worry too much about whether it would be labeled one thing or another because I knew that I was making a film that was sort of a date movie in the best sense. We could watch it together and we would forget that the sort of consumer-marketing world likes to divide people off into these niches.”

Jane Austen Book Club, 2007, Amy Brenneman, Kathy Baker, Maggie Grace, Maria Bello

Should I Care?
With the popular success of her novel, it’s easy to accuse Karen Joy Fowler of cranking out mass marketed pap, with Robin Swicord guilty by association for bringing it to the screen in a nice package. But The Jane Austen Book Club is quite the overlooked and underloved movie. It doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel and it doesn’t want to win an Oscar, but here’s a film about women (mostly) over the age of 40. Instead of being bound together by bitterness, their commonality is a love of books. Their problems are nothing new, but they’re addressed with a degree of wit, sensuality and intelligence. In other words, neither Kate Hudson or Katherine Heigl are involved.

Emily Blunt steals the show with her lovable brittleness, but Maria Bello, Amy Brenneman and even Kathy Baker (filling in for Ellen Burstyn) bring some sorely needed kinkiness, texture and aplomb to the standard issue rom-com. Hugh Dancy turns in a charming and very amusing performance and shares palpable chemistry with Bello. It’s also great to see Jimmy Smits back in a movie. There aren’t many surprises, but the cast is so good, revealing Robin Swicord to be a director of finesse and excellent taste. By focusing on the delayed gratification of literature — instead of wedding dresses or shopping — she’s made a women’s film that’s not only safe for men, but anyone with a mind.

Jane Austen Book Club, 2007, Maria Bello, Maggie Grace, Kathy Baker

Where’d You Get All of This?
“The Karen Joy Fowler Book Club” Locus Magazine, December 2004

“Swicord On the Map With Austen” By Anne Thompson. Variety, 31 August 2007

“Filming The Jane Austen Book Club
By Jacki Lyden. All Things Considered, 22 September 2007

“The Persuasion of Robin Swicord”
By Omar P.L. Moore. PopcornReel.com, 16 September 2007

The Jane Austen Book Club. DVD audio commentary by Robin Swicord, Hugh Dancy, Maggie Grace, Maryann Brandon & Julie Lynn. Sony Pictures (2008)

The Jane Austen Book Club – Production Notes

Tags: Based on novel · Bathtub scene · Brother/sister relationship · Midlife crisis · Mother/daughter relationship

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 kelsy // Aug 10, 2009 at 8:35 pm

    The Jane Austen Book Club is comforting in a way. It’s a movie about women that doesn’t make me hate women. And I adore Amy Brenneman always, so to see her in a film is a pleasure. Glad you enjoyed it.

  • 2 Reel Whore // Aug 11, 2009 at 11:10 am

    What are the odds? I just watched this from Netflix over the weekend! Freaky.

    Anyways, I really enjoyed it. It’s entertaining, the acting is great and it even made me contemplate reading the Austen novels.

  • 3 Tommy Salami // Aug 11, 2009 at 1:11 pm

    I got dragged to see this but I was pleasantly surprised. It’s quite good, and your review was enjoyable as usual. I appreciate the background work you put into the reviews.

  • 4 Joe Valdez // Aug 11, 2009 at 6:11 pm

    Kelsy: I think the first time I realized that the moms on TV were hotter than their daughters was watching Amy Brenneman on Judging Amy. She was at the top of the list among casting directors for a spell in the mid-1990s. Brenneman was so natural, so believable in Heat that I wish she had the opportunity to do more film. This movie is indeed a good ambassador for women. Thanks for commenting!

    Wayward Jam: You’re like Pacman gobbling up movies instead of pellets over there at the Reel Whore. I’m happy to see that The Jane Austen Book Club ranked better than average on your docket. I’d recommend it to anyone. Thanks for commenting.

    Tommy: The unfortunate thing about The Jane Austen Book Club is that it shows what happens to a smart, adult romantic comedy — practically no one ever hears about it. That said, your approbation of the article made my day. It means a lot coming from one of my three favorite movie bloggers.

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