Everyone can tell that Abby (played by screenwriter Jennifer Westfeldt) is adorable. Her parents dote on her. A jittery subway mugger is disarmed by her – literally. She has not managed to sell a single membership at the health club where she works, but she has the affection, esteem, and devotion of everyone who works (and works out) there. When Ira (Chris Messina) wanders in, she tells him not to bother with a membership and he is immediately smitten.
Yes, everybody loves Abby. That is a problem for Ira, who has to learn to trust his feelings for her and hers for him. But it becomes a problem for the audience, too. Westfeldt as screenwriter is a little too much in love with the character she has created for Westfeldt the actress, but a strong cast and its willingness to go beyond the usual conventions of romantic comedies keep us rooting for the young couple to find a happily ever after ending.
Just after they meet, Abby impulsively proposes to Ira and he accepts. Up to that point, Ira has had a terrible time making decisions. His psychotherapy, his doctoral thesis, and his romantic relationship have all stalled. He overthinks everything to the point of implosion.
But Abby is irresistible, because she appeals to Ira’s heart, not his head, because marrying her represents action and progress, and because he loves the feeling that he makes her happy. Most important, she represents that Life Force often found in romantic comedies, which frequently focus on an uptight character learning how much more there is to life from a free spirit.
As with her first film “Kissing Jessica Stein,” Westfeldt has written a clever screenplay with some zingy one-liners and sharp characterizations. It flirts with farce, even satire when the main characters and their multiple therapists all sit down in a big circle to talk things over. The final act becomes over-plotted when old and new relationships threaten to derail the happiness that so quickly came to Ira and Abby.
What keeps it all on course is its grounding in some important insights about relationships that are overlooked in movies that fade out after the couple gets together. This movie begins where most comedies end, allowing it to gently raise some thoughtful points about relationships. The very thing that first draws Ira to Abby, her ability to see the best in him, becomes the thing that frightens him. Does he love her for who she is, and not just for the vision of himself he enjoys in her eyes? The very thing he first loves about her, her ability to be happy, scares him, too. If she can be so easily delighted, how can he be sure he is special to her? Ira discovers that what can be most terrifying for him is not loving but allowing himself to be loved.
The movie benefits from an exceptionally strong line-up of supporting characters beautifully played by a top-notch cast. Fred Willard and Frances Conroy are Abby’s jingle-writer parents, so endlessly cheerful that they make Santa look grumpy. Ira’s therapist parents are played by Judith Light and Robert Klein, brittle as the ice clinking in their highballs. The hilarious parade of counselors includes “Seinfeld’s” Jason Alexander, “Saturday Night Live’s” Chris Parnell and Darrell Hammond, and the always-exquisite Donna Murphy. Maddie Corman displays all the expected neuroses but also some unexpected vulnerability as Ira’s ex. Ramon Rodriguez is nicely disconcerted as the subway mugger. Each of the characters captures our interest and attention. And both as screenwriter and as star, Westfeldt keeps the center of the story sweet and the movie as impossible to resist as its irrepressibly warm-hearted heroine.
Parents should know that the movie includes strong languages, drinking, references to drug abuse, and sexual references and non-explicit situations, including adultery.
Viewers who see this movie should talk about why it was so easy for Abby to connect to people. Why was it so hard for Ira to feel that he deserved love? What should they have talked about before getting married?
Viewers who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “Annie Hall” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
I’m pretty sure that Jane Austen never thought of including a lesbian jumping out of an airplane in any of her books, and yet somehow that scene fits in just fine in this story of six people who get together to read all six of Austen’s novels. Austen did manage to cover, in six books all taking place almost entirely in the quiet British countryside of the late 18th century, many variations on the themes of love and learning, and this film shows us how her stories continue to inspire and connect people who realize that very little has changed in the last 200 plus years.
The book club starts as a way to cheer up Sylvia (Amy Brenneman), just dumped by her husband (Jimmy Smits). Sylvia’s friends, the free-spirited Bernadette (Kathy Baker) and the dog-breeding loner Jocelyn (Maria Bello), invite Sylvia’s daughter Allegra (Maggie Grace), an impetuous, extreme sport-loving lesbian. Bernadette impulsively invites Prudie (Emily Blunt), a prim high school French teacher who has never been to France. And Jocelyn even more impulsively invites a man — Hugh Dancy as Grig, a sci-fi loving techie who asks if some of the six Austen books are sequels.
Once a month, they meet to talk about the books, each of them taking turns to host and present. And the themes of the book — from the patient hoping of Mansfield Park and Persuasion to the jump-to-the-wrong conclusions of Northanger Abbey, Pride and Prejudice, and Emma, to Sense and Sensibility, which has both, each book seems to resonate to one or more of the characters and their own paths to love.
The movie is a big improvement over the wispy novel, which teetered between being cutesy and being cloying. One reason is a brilliant cast, each of whom adds tremendous heart and vibrancy to the story. It also benefits from lively direction and high spirits provided by screenwriter Robin Swicord. The opening credit sequence sets the stage with a collection of scenes showing the frustrations of modern life. And the pacing keeps things light and bubbly, making it clear that, like Austen’s heroines, a happy ending will be in store.
Parents should know that this movie includes explicit sexual references and situations, gay and straight. A character commits adultery and another considers having sex with a very inappropriate partner. The movie includes brief strong language, alcohol, and drug use.
Families who see this movie should talk about how the stories of the characters parallel the novels by Jane Austen. What are some other examples of “the humbling of the know-it-all pretty girl?” Do you agree that “high school is never over?”
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “In Her Shoes,” and the movies based on and inspired by Jane Austen’s novels, including “Sense and Sensibility,” “Emma,” “Pride and Prejudice,” “Bride and Prejudice,” “Clueless,” and “Bridget Jones’s Diary.”
I’ve seen four movies based on books in the past week and all made me think about the perils of adapting novels to the screen. I once heard Peter Hedges speak about the difference between plays, novels, and movies. His novel, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, was adapted into a fine movie by Lasse Hallström, and he described the experience as a master class in understanding the difference between print and film. He said that novels are about what people think and feel, plays are about what they say, and movies are about showing what the characters think and feel, most often without saying anything.
I did not think much of the book The Jane Austen Book Club. If any other author’s name was in the title, it would not have been a best-seller. The movie version is far better, genuinely enjoyable. Feast of Love and O Jerusalem did not live up to their source material. The Dark is Rising, The book that inspired “The Seeker” was so diluted in the final script that it had the same relaitonship to the source material that a homeopathic remedy has to its active ingredient. And the result was less efficacious.
It is not just about the acting. “The Jane Austen Book Club” has first class actors who bring more subtlety and complexity and life to the characters than the author ever did, but “Feast of Love” has Morgan Freeman, Jane Alexander, and Greg Kinnear, who all do the best they can but never make the relationships on screen feel immediate or alive. It just has to do with showing, not telling, and “The Jane Austen Book Club” manages that act of alchemy where the others fail.