Wednesday, August 01, 2007

"Becoming Jane" -- * 1/2

From its bland title to its bland leading lady, “Becoming Jane” registers as one of the most uninspired, unimaginative films to be released so far this year, with the lack of effort practically dripping off the screen. It’s just another in the seemingly-yearly tradition of movies depicting the “inspiration” for a beloved British writer, complete with an American actress in the leading role. From its first shot, it feels like it’s just waiting idly for the studio (Miramax) to work an Oscar campaign around it. The thought process seems to be combining all the themes and ideas that worked about “Pride & Prejudice” and “Shakespeare in Love,” but the stuffy, costume-driven “Jane” lacks the charm or cohesiveness of either.

As you may know, “Becoming Jane” stars Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen (who the closing crawl brags wrote “six of the greatest books of all time”—according to whom?) in her pre-fame days. I assumed it would show how Austen fell into writing, or the events in her life either inspiring or mirroring her later works. Instead, it focuses on Austen as a lovey-dovey girl who eventually ends up with broken heart, and devotes all of five minutes of its running time to mentions of her writing or even being an author. What’s that? You think that sounds like the least interesting movie about Jane Austen imaginable? There’s a nice idea in here—that Austen’s disappointing love life was inspiration for her book’s happy endings—but it’s barely given any credence until the very end, at which point any possible impact has been dulled.

In an attempt to mirror “Shakespeare,” the script seems to go for madcap farce—muskets are accidentally fired in small rooms, a girl sings off-key to the shudders of the man right next to her (hiLARious!). However, all the trappings—the score, the direction—seem to want it to be a classic period love story; in the end, neither approach works. I should have known what I was in for when the movie opened with a scene of implied cunnilingus between James Cromwell and Julie Walters—an image I hoped to never have put in my head. Speaking of which, with a scene like that, and a shot of James McAvoy’s ass, how in the hell did this movie get a PG rating?

I’ve always found Hathaway more uninteresting and mediocre than actually ‘bad’ and she did nothing to change my mind here. Her accent isn’t overtly or cartoonishly awful, but it never quite sounds right or believable and always a bit too mannered. Her Jane is always perpetually uninteresting, and despite the best efforts made, I never felt any warmth or inclination to like her in the movie; she comes off as borderline-annoying, selfish and just, well, bland. And if I may add, Ms. Hathaway looks remarkably pale, even by 17th century standards.

McAvoy, however, is just as dashing and skillful at playing a fluffy romantic lead as he was gripping a compelling antihero in last year’s “The Last King of Scotland.” I think he’s supposed to be the inspiration for Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. Darcy, but it doesn’t help matters that him and Hathaway don’t have any real chemistry together. However, the blame for that doesn’t seem to fall on him, since he’s almost exhaustingly charming here. All signs seem to indicate that he’ll capably anchor this fall’s big Oscar-hopeful “Atonement.”

The supporting cast is unfortunately wasted and given startlingly little to do. It’s sad that an actress as gifted as Julie Walters (so recently nominated for an Oscar) is reduced to playing the doting “get married!” mother. Brenda Blethyn played a similar role in “Pride & Prejudice” with wit and warmth, but the writing here makes no such allowance.

Cromwell barely makes an impression as Jane’s father, so soon after “The Queen,” and Maggie Smith shows up for a few signature moments of looking dour and delivering lines dripping with acid, basically playing Judi Dench’s “Pride” role. She also gets what is, hands down, the funniest moment in the movie:

Julie Walters: “Would you like some tea?”

Maggie Smith: “Green Tea?”

Julie Walters: “Brown.”

Maggie Smith: “Then, no.”

I shit you not. That’s the funniest scene in the movie.

The direction by Julian Jarrold (“Kinky Boots”) is consistently flat, though it’s evident that he has some element of wit—James Cromwell’s name in the opening credits being shown after a shot of suckling pigs couldn’t have been an accident. He also haphazardly stages certain scenes so we’re not 100% sure what’s going on. For a few moments, I could’ve sworn it was implied that a young gentleman was Dame Maggie Smith’s fucktoy, but we’re soon informed it’s her nephew, and later in the proceedings, it seems the movie is implying McAvoy is gay, but it’s forgotten almost immediately.

However, the most ham-handed element of the movie is how we’re shown what a “free thinker” Jane is. She *gasp* plays the piano early in the morning and wakes everybody up, and also insists on playing cricket with the boys. That’s right, the same “unique breed” quirks we’ve seen in every movie with a female character determined to stand out.

“Becoming Jane” is the kind of movie that features a stuffy old man in a dusty wig asking incredulously [and I’m paraphrasing here] “Wha, wha, wha?!? A woman writing?!,” and later stating [I’m NOT paraphrasing] “This is an outrage!” I had sat through dozens of well-worn clichés and overused elements throughout the movie, but by the time this guy took center stage, it began to tread dangerously towards self-parody.

At the 95-minute mark of the film, a man two seats over from me began loudly snoring. Rather than wake him up, all of us surrounding him just tittered to ourselves and allowed him to continue snoring for the next few minutes, delighted that at least SOMETHING interesting was taking place in the screening room. This should tell you all you need to know about “Becoming Jane.”


Anonymous jesse said...

Dude! I'm so glad you didn't like this movie either. I've been reading the (admittedly marginally) positive Tomatometer notices with my mouth agape. But you and the Onion AV Club get the lameness.

9:08 PM  

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