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The Jane Austen Book Club (2007) -vs- Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)

Jay AmicarellaThe Smackdown

You’ve probably seen a movie written by Robin Swicord and didn’t even know it.  Her specialty is adapting popular novels for the bigscreen, and this South Carolina native has transformed some books I never would’ve read into films I’ll never forget.  Such diverse material as “Matilda,” “Practical Magic,” “Shag,” and “The Perez Family” have all received the Swicord Treatment, and although her screenplays and the films themselves have had varying degrees of success, the results of her labors are very watchable.  In 2005, Swicord adapted “Memoirs of a Geisha” for “Chicago” Director Rob Marshall, a story of Love unrequited, in an insular, emotionally repressive society.  Sound like a Jane Austen novel?  In 2007, Robin Swicord not only adapted the screenplay for “The Jane Austen Book Club,” she directed this romantic drama-dy of a disparate group of book lovers whose love lives begin to resemble the plots of the works they discuss every month.

The Challenger

When Sylvia’s (Amy Brenneman) lout of a husband (Jimmy Smits) asks for a divorce after twenty-odd years and three children, well-meaning Bernadette (Kathy Baker) seeks a divertissement for her distraught friend.  After a chance meeting with Prudie (Emily Blunt), a high school french teacher whose own marriage is foundering, and discovering that the young woman shares her and Sylvia’s love of the books of Jane Austen, Bernadette founds “The Jane Austen Book Club, ” as an effort to help both women. She quickly recruits Sylvia’s lesbian daughter Allegra, and old friend Jocelyn (Maria Bello) as charter members, but that leaves six Jane Austen novels for just five women, an inequity that is soon resolved. In Grande Austen style, the equally well-intentioned Jocelyn drags the newly-met  Grigg (Hugh Dancy), a highly strung sci-fi buff, into the group as a possible romantic stopgap for Sylvia, in spite of an instant mutual attraction between  Grigg and herself.  Emotional havoc ensues, not only between these three, but the other book club members, as well.  Neglected by her Jock husband, Prudie begins to find herself falling for an amorous student at her school, while the mercurial Allegra meets a new love interest after a sky-diving mishap.  Six-times married, world-wise Bernadette is content to sit back, and be an observer and confidante, for a while….

“The Jane Austen Book Club” is briskly paced, and there are appealing characters, great lines, and many funny/sad moments to enjoy, as the club members realize both, that they are behaving as characters in Austen’s books, and, as they are in the throes of love, they are powerless to stop themselves.  The film becomes uncomfortable when director/writer Swicord attempts to project Elizabethan sensibilities on to twenty-first century dilemmas.  After enduring searing real-life headlines, the audience can find little humorous or romantic in the prospect of a teacher’s seduction by a student, for one.  The movie succeeds when the characters either show, as in the books they love, too much restraint in their romantic decisions, or not enough.

The Defending Champion

“Memoirs of a Geisha” is the story of a young girl (Suzuku Ohgo) sold by her poor family into a kind of privileged slavery in 1929 Japan.  Trained from the age of nine to become, upon her adulthood, the Asian version of a courtesan, young Chiyo yearns for the lost love of her family, only finding kindness and acceptance from a wealthy stranger referred to only as The Chairman (Ken Watanabe).  As she matures into a beautiful young Geisha, she is renamed Sayuri (played by Ziyi Zhang), and incurs the jealous wrath of the House’s pre-eminent member, Hatsumomo (Gong Li).  Due to the intense strictures of Japanese society, the inevitable battle between the two women has to be played out with guile and subtlety, but neither of them realize that the coming inferno of World War II will thwart, and make irrelevant, all their efforts.

“Memoirs of a Geisha” is a gorgeous, senses-filling wonder, full of exquisite costumes and sets, captivating music, and sensual set pieces.  The depiction by scenarist Swicord of a world forbidden for centuries to, not only Westerners, but all of Japanese society, save for a few privileged males, is intrigueing and provocative.  But the film suffers from director Marshall’s lack of understanding of the nuances of the culture he is examining, and this weakens the film’s overall impact.

The Scorecard

When’s the last time you hooted at a movie because of the rotten acting?  It rarely occurs, anymore, thanks to the devotion to the Craft of a generation of performers intent on delivering quality, and directors who fully understand how to get the most from those in their employ.  And these two films are no exception.  Much of the success of each is due to the superb portrayals offered by some of the best in the business.  “The Jane Austen Book Club” is buoyed by Kathy Baker, in one of the best roles she’s had in years, as Bernadette, drolly underplaying to maximum effect. Grieving Amy Brenneman, aiming-to-please Hugh Dancy, abashed Jimmy Smits, in fact, the whole cast, lift the movie above the material, and almost produce a winner on sheer talent, alone.  Likewise, the cast of “Memoirs of a Geisha,” especially the riveting performance of the staggeringly beautiful Gong Li as the malevolent Hatsumomo, makes you believe in and care for all concerned. And Robin Swicord’s scripts are inarguably well written, particularly “Book Club”, where she deftly inserts lines from Jane Austen’s classics into character’s mouths to amuse the Austen aficianado, while at the same time explaining the goings-on for the neophyte.  But each film stumbles along its way.  In “Book Club,” it is wrapping up serious situations too conveniently, too pat for believability.   Relationships that are in grave trouble are rescued at the last minute clumsily, with little regard for the audience, or the pride of Miss Austen.  In “Memoirs of a Geisha,” it is the director who comes up short.  Rob Marshall obviously couldn’t come to an understanding of an incredibly complex society, given the limits of the time he had to work on the project, and the result is somewhere between costume-epic and  movie of substance.

The Decision

One film is a modern romantic comedy-drama, the other a period character study.  Two very different movies sharing a common writer, and a common shortcoming.  In each, it is the director who lets down the proceedings.  Robin Swicord, at the helm of “The Jane Austen Book Club,” shoots her screenwriter-self in the foot by ending the movie in a whirlwind, tying up her character’s lives in a hastily knotted pink bow.  “Memoirs of a Geisha,” on the other hand, despite talented Rob Marshall taking on a project a touch out of his depth, still rings true to the end.  It’s character’s hopes, anguish, and happiness are ultimately resolved in a way that doesn’t offend his audience, and so becomes our Smackdown! favorite.

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