MOVIE REVIEW- Soap and sensibility: Making believers of non-Janeites

There are two kinds of soap operas: the traditional melodrama and the darkly comic satire. 

The Jane Austen Book Club represents a third kind, with all the events that can be crammed into six lives and those they touch, but told in a sweet, funny way. It's also a feast for Jane Austen fans, in case they're hungry again after Becoming Jane, combining discussion of and elements from all six of her novels.

You'll get more out of the movie if you're as Austen-tatious as the characters, but some terrific actresses make the story interesting, probably even for Austen neophytes.

When Daniel (Jimmy Smits) leaves Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) for another woman, the women in her life try to console her. Her grown lesbian daughter, Allegra (Maggie Grace), moves back in with her. Bernadette (Kathy Baker), who's been married six times and is open to a seventh, suggests getting a group together to read and discuss Austen: "Six novels, six people– we'll each be responsible for one book. All Jane Austen– all the time."

Jocelyn (Maria Bello), who avoids commitment as well as any man, and whose dog just died, thinks a younger man is just the "distraction" Sylvia needs. When she meets Grigg (Hugh Dancy), Jocelyn tries to hook them up, oblivious to the fact that he's really interested in her, to the extent that he joins the club and promises to read all the books, even though he prefers science-fiction.

Then there's Prudie (Emily Blunt), who's included in the club but doesn't do anything special for Sylvia because she has problems of her own. She's married to Dean (Marc Blucas), "a complete Neanderthal," an insensitive (but handsome) lout "who would cancel a trip to Paris for a basketball game." Prudie's a schoolteacher, and there's a student, Trey (Kevin Zegers), who appears to be flirting with her. Can she at least wait until he graduates? To make life complete, there's a visit from her aging-hippie mother (Lynn Redgrave).

The story extends over the period of their six monthly meetings, with some discussion of Emma, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and finally, Persuasion. Each woman goes through changes, but for the most part they follow the Austen rule: "Nothing in haste."

While the other women deal with the men in their lives, Allegra finds a girlfriend, Corinne (Parisa Fitz-Henley), while skydiving. They last a few months. Later Allegra goes to the hospital, and when a woman (Gwendoline Yeo) says, "I'm Dr. Yep," you just know that's Yep as in "Yep, I'm gay," the famous line from Ellen DeGeneres' Time magazine cover in April 1997.

Director Robin Swicord, who adapted the book by Karen Joy Fowler, understands what Jocelyn means when she says, "Reading Jane Austen is a frickin' minefield." Swicord's screenplay avoids the mines, and the occasional firecracker she sets off does no harm.

I've found that someone who's obsessed with a topic can make it interesting to others, at least for a short time, through their contagious enthusiasm, especially if they can discuss it with some intelligence. The Jane Austen Book Club is like that. With its contemporary setting and excellent actresses, it won't turn off non-Janeites, even if it leaves them wondering why those people are so excited about her.