'The Jane Austen Book Club' is a cut above chick flicks

Okay. First things first. "The Jane Austen Book Club" might be thought of as a chick flick. Of course that moniker is shallow, condescending, and should be stricken from all discussion of films of this ilk. It would likely be best to not mention that as book clubs go, it's women who congregate in living rooms and on patios, sipping a hearty burgundy, munching small sandwiches, developing reading lists, holding monthly meetings and discussing plot, character, voice and such. Guys don't. Do they? The Tom Clancy Book Club? A monthly gathering for Men Who Love the Film The Dirty Dozen More than Life Itself? Okay, that's condescending, shallow...

Tangentially, Jane Austen's novels, written by a prolific and independent 19th century woman whose imagination was awash with romance, requited and unrequited love, and a panoply of characters that spanned the spectrum. She was a wordsmith who fashioned psychodramas that 200 years later still resonate. Regrettably, she died at age 41 or there likely would have been not six novels but 16.

But back to "The Jane Austen Book Club." However you might be tempted to characterize the genre, this is a nicely done film with a strong ensemble cast of women who deliver top drawer performances. Led by Maria Bello as Jocelyn, Emily Blunt as Prudie, Kathy Bates as Bernadette, Amy Brennamen as Sylvia, and Maggie Grace as Allegra, all are engaging and spot on. And not to forget the sixth member of the group, Grigg, played by Hugh Dancy, the lone male in the group, unversed in Austen but game.

It's Bernadette who decides to form the club and all agree to read Austen's books, one each month, capped by a meeting where upon they perform a literary autopsy. What is soon evident is that the enjoyment of good literature, like fine films and works of art, is symbiotic. In "Book Club" we soon see that the novels mirror the different lives of the club members. All are struggling with life's exigencies and to a person identify with Austen's central characters. It makes for an interesting and engaging film, a quilt of narratives focusing on the members and punctuated by their monthly meetings. "The Jane Austen Book Club" is a nifty film, completely enjoyable. And know that it's not necessary to have read a word of Austen to enjoy this movie.

"Feast of Love," is, well, not exactly a feast but a midmorning buffet offering up a wonderful ensemble cast. Each character has a story to tell, all anchored by Morgan Freeman's fine portrayal of a college professor who has recently suffered a tragic loss, and now finds himself adrift, unable to connect with his wife or himself.

Set in Portland, Oregon, it not only showcases the talents of the actors but Portland as well. No wonder Californians are heading north.

The film begins in a college campus coffee shop, Jitters, owned by Bradley (Greg Kinnear), currently happily married, or so he thinks. We soon learn that he is profoundly unlucky in love, and willing at the drop of a hat to assume, after two train wrecks, that he simply isn't cut out to love and be loved in return. Of course, given the title of the film, the central, elusive, fickle, and consternating emotion in this spiffy tale is love: finding it, nurturing it, or discovering that it can break your heart and drop all that emotional detritus at your feet. Love is high risk high gain. Bradley is waiting for high gain.

In the end, as the film demonstrates, making connections with people, allowing our lives to touch others, to risk involvement, be it friendship or more, is how so many define being alive. Perhaps it's not unlike seeing a wonderful sunset and then wanting only to turn to someone else and comment on the moment. So deep is this need that if a companion is not handy, well, a stranger will do in a pinch. Life is to be lived, and is enriched by the company of others. "Feast of Love" conveys this and more in a well done, life affirming manner. It's directed by Robert Benton, a gifted filmmaker, who did "Kramer v. Kramer." "Feast" doesn't have the emotional impact of "Kramer," but it gently and convincingly pulls the audience into a montage of interconnected stories that are compelling.

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