Winner of the K-19: The Widowmaker award for worst title and champion of a premise that will earn it about a dollar at the box office, The Jane Austen Book Club might nevertheless be one of the sweetest, best-written movies this year. In many ways, Little Women screenwriter Robin Swicord's directorial debut feels like the classy female counterpoint to the smart, unapologetically crass dude-centric comedies (like Knocked Up and Superbad) that dominated the summer.
Jocelyn (Maria Bello) is one of five deeply lonely women who decide to form a book club to discuss the merits of their titular favorite writer, with Grigg (Hugh Dancy) rounding out the group as the token male and the sole Austen amateur. Jocelyn has firmly convinced herself that she's doing fine alone, but her friend Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) has been thoroughly wrecked by the departure of her unfaithful husband (Jimmy Smits), and since Grigg is attractive, interesting, and eager to flirt with Jocelyn, Jocelyn decides to set him up with her jilted buddy. Meanwhile, serial marrier Bernadette (Kathy Baker) has decided to rescue Prudie (Emily Blunt) from unhappiness with her bonehead husband Dean (Marc Blucas) by whisking her away to a world of good manners and gents with names like Darcy, Bingley, and Knightley.
Nobody quite knows what they want, except Grigg, whose frustrating lack of complex motivations is the source of a number of good jokes. Swicord lets her characters hide behind their favorite literary heroines and then pits them against one another in the book club debate with surprising subtlety and cleverness, rewarding Austen fans and giving newcomers the feeling that they're in on the joke. Swicord is an incurable, universal romantic, and there are moments when her lack of experience as a director trips up her screenplay (rated PG-13 for language), but she has a healthy respect for marriage and a shrewd ear for character-driven dialogue.