"Each of us has a private Austen." So begins Karen Joy Fowler's popular novel The Jane Austen Book Club, and it's a sentiment that carries through the tidy premise of six women reading Austen's six novels and hearing her words reverberate in their private lives. Though the title reeks of commercial calculation, there's promise in the conceit, which touches on the relationship people have with books and how they find personal meaning in them, even if it takes some shoehorning to get them to fit. Great authors like Austen inspire endless speculation about their characters' destinies, real or imagined, and continually send fans rifling through dog-eared pages. But there's a difference between connecting to a writer's work and reading too much of yourself in it, and the banal film version of Fowler's book crosses the line six too many times.
Opening with a lame piece of misdirection that sets the cutesy-poo tone, the film gathers most of the principal characters for a funeral—a somber occasion, or at least it would be if it weren't revealed to be for a dog. The widow of sorts is Maria Bello, a breeder who's always felt too content with her dogs to seek companionship of another kind. Bello's more concerned with her sister Amy Brenneman, whose marriage crumbles precipitously after her husband (Jimmy Smits) suddenly declares his love for another woman. When their oft-married friend Kathy Baker suggests they start a book club devoted to Austen's work, they recruit three other members: Brenneman's lesbian daughter Maggie Grace; uptight French teacher Emily Blunt, who suffers a Neanderthal sports-loving husband (Marc Blucas); and lone man out Hugh Dancy, whom Bello tries, Emma-like, to set up with her sister.
Though someone suggests they read the books in chronological order, the meetings are arranged in an order more convenient to the narrative, which contrives neat Austen-y resolutions to everyone's problems. Writer-director Robin Swicord—whose credits, including Little Women, Practical Magic, and Memoirs Of A Geisha, reveal a niche in femme-friendly adaptation—isn't a terribly gifted filmmaker, so the puppet-strings are really laid bare. Apart from the frequent visually non-dazzling montages of people curling up with a book, Swicord hits the same dramatic beats with every book club meeting, which all devolve into one member interpreting an Austen novel to suit their current situation. There's no subtext to The Jane Austen Book Club, just a skim across the books' surface that winds up re-shelving a great author into the self-help section.