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Movie review

'Book Club' has more sensibility than sense

Hugh Dancy and Maria Bello trade literary enthusiasms. Hugh Dancy and Maria Bello trade literary enthusiasms. (Ralph Nelson/Sony Pictures Classic)

It's called "The Jane Austen Book Club." But it's a lot like a pumpkin spice frappuccino with extra sugar and extra cream. You'll laugh. You'll cry. You'll leave with foam on your nose. So cute. As a friend said on the way out: At least no books were harmed in the making of this movie. And he's right. But that's only because no one really tried.

Robin Swicord's movie is so respectful of Austen that it doesn't challenge her eminence with many ideas of its own. Five Sacramento women and one man form a group devoted to discussing the author's six novels, and, inevitably, the lives of Swicord's characters take on some of the complications of Austen's.

For Swicord, Austen is a religious denomination, and her novels, as one character flippantly observes, comprise a bible. The religion just needs a better church. For instance, the opening credits play over a harried montage of mishaps - dropped laptops, vending machines that don't vend, the parking spot stolen just as you were about to pull in. It feels less like Jane Austen and more a prelude to a song Alanis Morissette never got around to writing.

Swicord adapted the movie from Karen Joy Fowler's novel, and both are ambitious works of fluff devoted to a bourgeois posse. After 20-odd years of marriage, Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) has just been dumped, and all she can think about is her husband (Jimmy Smits). Her unmarried best friend, Jocelyn (Maria Bello), tries to set up Sylvia with the lone man in the group, a rich tech-services guy named Grigg (Hugh Dancy), who's actually hot for Jocelyn. Obviously, she wants him, too, but doesn't exactly know it. Sylvia's thrill-seeking daughter, Allegra (Maggie Grace), is prone to tumbling off walls, out of planes, and into love with cute girls.

Her opposite is an unhappily married, uptight high-school French teacher named - wait for it - Prudie, and played by Emily Blunt. Prudie has a workaholic husband (Marc Blucas), a student (Kevin Zegers) madly in love with her, and a chronically stoned hippie mother, whom Lynn Redgrave incarnates as a gorgon. Rounding out things is Kathy Baker as Bernadette, the wisest, feistiest woman in the group.

Most of the actors have an unwavering grip on their roles, which keeps the movie entertaining. The characters come in one shade, but some of the cast, especially Blunt and Dancy, use the crayons well. Still, this is the kind of movie that doesn't trust us to catch the resemblance between a character here and one Austen heroine. Instead, Sylvia has to say, "I feel like Fanny Price from 'Mansfield Park.' "

In fact, watching these people dissect Austen's books is fun until you realize that every character except Baker's is such a prisoner of her life that she can only view the novels through the prism of her own problems.

The most fascinating ideas in the movie involve gender, how men perceive Austen's books as chick lit and how women can disabuse them of that notion. But the ladies make it look much too easy. What man would break down and read "Persuasion" to save his marriage? "The Jane Austen Book Club" finds a whopping two.

There is one very nicely done touch, though, between Jocelyn and Grigg, who explains that some of his favorite science-fiction authors were women who wrote under men's names. He respectfully agrees to join the club on the condition that Jocelyn read some Ursula K. Le Guin, which out of snobbery she initially refuses to do. This is the most authentically Austenian thing about this movie. His sci-fi pride melts her literary prejudice.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies/blog.

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The Jane Austen Book Club

Written and directed by: Robin Swicord, adapted from the novel by Karen Joy Fowler

Starring: Amy Brenneman, Maria Bello, Emily Blunt, Kathy Baker, Hugh Dancy, Jimmy Smits, and Lynn Redgrave

At: Kendall Square, Cambridge

Running time: 105 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (mature thematic material, sexual content, brief strong language, and some drug use)

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