05 January 2008

The Jane Austen Book Club

God. damnit. I got tricked into watching this movie because for once in my life, I didn't bring enough books on the plane with me (you'd think 4 would be enough, but when you lose interest in one of them halfway through... THIS IS WHY I PACK EXTRAS USUALLY. SO EVERYONE WHO GIVES ME GRIEF ABOUT PACKING TOO MANY BOOKS CAN SUCK IT. Why am I so annoyed? Because I ate this movie up. It's a goddamn chick flick extraordinaire, and I totally fell for it. Ugh.

So the premise of the book is, one woman's husband dumps her for a younger woman, another one's dog dies and she holds a huge funeral for it because she's so distraught, and another one's husband bails on their trip to Paris, and a friend of theirs decides to start a book club to cheer them all up. They decide it'll be the Jane Austen book club. Dog-lady meets a random guy and ropes him into it too. So we've got 5 women, one guy, ie one person per Austen novel. And of course, as they read, their love lives get all kinds of complicated, and through the laughter and the tears they all become better people and it's a big happy ending. Well, almost. The lesbian, she doesn't really change at all, nor does she get a happy ending. Hetero-normativity triumphs again!

Yeah, the more I think about it, the more that irks me. Especially because the final shots of the film so insistently focus on her, ALONE. And it's not as if to say, look! She can be happy on her own! And in fact, while all of the women have various hang-ups when it comes to relationships, hers are the only ones that are really explicitly stated and seen as her problem, whereas the others are ultimately minimized. For instance, the fact that one of the women is about to get married for the 7th time to a guy who makes his first appearance in the last 3 minutes of the film - nope, nothing wrong with that. So that's annoying.

Then there's the whole chick flick aspect of it, you know, all these women are stereotypically unique snowflakes with poignant miseries and personal melodramas and fervent, secret desires. The movie actually does a decent job, in this respect, by having one character who, while she indeed does have some valid things to gripe about, is obviously taking it out on her husband, a thoroughly decent guy who really wants to make his marriage work despite the fact that his wife is a self-absorbed bitch. Also, while the male characters are clearly fictional products of a female imagination, there is a nice moment where the guy in the club points out the way in which he is being objectified. And he also gets to complain that the woman he's pursuing isn't making an effort to understand him, which is a refreshing reversal. So the film at least makes a half-hearted attempt to avoid the more egregious faults of your average chick flick. But of course, it painfully re-enforces a whole host of incredibly irritating gender norms, not to mention the whole hetero domestic bliss thing.

What's meant to be the movie's big hook was actually kind of interesting to me, though probably not in quite the way it was meant to be. Because of course, all these seething personal melodramas are brought to the fore in the discussions of the novels. We get a read on each character by the way they react to the books, because their reactions so transparently lay bare their own inner states that it's almost painful. This actually didn't annoy me as much as I thought it would. I actually ended up appreciating it, in spite of myself. Because their discussions of the texts are actually kind of interesting - each person brings their own experiences to the text and pretty much everyone gets at least one interesting observation about at least one book (I personally totally dug the guy's parallel between Mansfield Park and The Empire Strikes Back, though I suppose it was meant to seem totally stupid). Though I couldn't help but feel like they were missing some really important things about the books, really interesting stuff, I kind of had to admit to myself that probably, they wouldn't really give a shit about those aspects of the books. I would be no fun at a book club, I think. They'd be all like, "Isn't Mr Darcy dreamy?" and I'm like, "Isn't the narrative voice fascinating? Whose perspective is it? Did you notice how at times it seems to slip into the vernacular of a given character, repeating key phrases over and over in an ironic kind of way? What's that about?" Sigh.

I do think, though, that the film is intentionally trying to reflect on Jane Austen novels and their narrative appeal, not least by subtly paralleling her plot devices. Which is clever... but not as clever as a Jane Austen novel. I mean, I guess though, for most people, it's the effects of her cleverness that are appealing, not so much the techniques that creates them. And I admit, I'm a total sucker for them too. But the whole point, the reason, for instance, that all these dudes in the movie can believably actually dig these books, is because they're actually amazing works of literature, and you know, it'd be nice if they could get away from the crappy chick lit reputations. Which, of course, is also kind of what the film is trying to do, by ultimately giving you three male characters who genuinely appreciate the books...

But ok, I admit it, I totally had the hots for the male lead. I mean, come on, he's smart, funny, sweet, into good books (and passionate enough about them to get the girl of his interest into Ursula LeGuin novels, which is totally awesome) AND a total gadget dork? And easy on the eyes to boot? Oh, and a good dancer? Please. I know Christmas is long gone, but if you find one of those lying around, send 'im my way. Should he also be into underground hiphop and food, then, well, you should probably see a doctor because you're hanging out with a figment of my imagination. Heh heh. Sigh. Heh heh.

See how I was ostensibly talking about the movie there, but actually wasn't really at all? That's kind of what happens in the movie for the most part, except it's not nearly so blatant, and actually does involve some interesting reflections on the texts. So anyways, yeah, it did lead me to think about what people get out of books that they read for pleasure, and what makes for a satisfying reading experience. Which was a lot more satisfying than thinking about the "life lessons" in their various love affairs. And which is probably what most men who watch the movie despite its chick flick rep will claim to get out of it, thinking of living out gender stereotypes.

Seriously though, this movie isn't that bad. It's not great, but it's better than many movies of its kind. You could do worse than to watch it.

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