Thursday, February 7, 2008

Out Tuesday - Becoming Jane (****4/10)

Becoming Jane is ostensibly the story of Jane Austen, considered by many to be the greatest female novelist of all time. Of course, we have to put the qualifier "female" in front of "novelist", because it's such a ... well ... novelty. Like "male stripper". Never mind the fact that the Bronte sisters, George Eliot, Margaret Laurence, Mary Shelley and Alice Walker have written some of the most enduring classics in literature, they are still "female authors". And in Jane Austen's time, being a "female author" was a pretty big deal. George Eliot clearly had to operate under a pseudonym (I actually have no idea what her real name was) because women couldn't write stuff! Women cleaned and cooked and made babies! (It was a different time.) Now, as a big fan of Jane Austen and her novels, I know a good deal about her life. Enough to know how Becoming Jane ends. (I won't tell you, in case you end up watching this film. And I hope you don't.)

Becoming Jane, the DVD from Alliance Atlantis that comes out today, comes with a free coupon for Pennington's. If you purchase 100 bucks worth of clothes, you get a 20 dollar credit - free! This should indicate something about the target audience for this film. Young women who just don't know any better, apparently. Jane Austen, one of the towering literary figures in history, gets the Hollywood "bio-pic" treatment here. And like everything else in Hollywood, no great historical tale can possibly be told without cramming in a love story. No one in history was interesting unless they were in love with someone. Think Titanic, Pearl Harbor, and so forth. Jane Austen's life was interesting only because of her love story, it turns out. You see, her family is trying to force her to marry a young, rich man so that they can have money and she'll be happy, because marrying rich is a must, if it is possible. But Jane (played by Anne Hathaway here) has a MIND of her OWN, and SHE wants to marry for LOVE.

Wait...this is familiar. So Jane Austen had a life that almost perfectly mirrored that of several other movies I have seen? Movies like Titanic, The Notebook, The Princess Bride, My Man Godfrey, Van Wilder, Wedding Crashers, Sweet Home Alabama, Clerks II, and four hundred others I won't bother listing? Of course she did! It's a little known fact that Kevin Smith based his Dante character in Clerks II on the life of Jane Austen. OK, I made that up. All these movies have something in common. Or many things. The girl doesn't want to be forced into a match, because she's rebellious and independant and she has a mind of her own! The man she is being pressured to marry has money and property and wealth, but is either a complete jerk and cad no girl would ever like, or a simpering sissy no girl would ever want. Becoming Jane goes the "simpering sissy" route. The heroine then meets a lower-class, poor working man. Possibly a brutish sort who fights and drinks and doesn't bathe or shave, but God help him he's his OWN MAN! They hate each other straight away, but that hate quickly turns to love.

An aside - this is actually how I got together with my girlfriend. I didn't bathe for weeks, I fought with everyone I met while in her presence, every time she saw me I was falling down drunk, and I called her many horrible names. I ran over her dog so we could start out on terms of "hate", but I knew that that always leads to love, because I watch a lot of movies. Worked like a charm! At the end of most of these movies, the heroine of course marries for love. But we're worried about her! How can she live so poor? She's pretty, and pretty girls can't be poor! So the guy usually ends up being incredibly rich, inheriting some money or winning the lottery or inventing a hilarious talking fish that proves to be lucrative. Now, she has the best of BOTH worlds! Thank God. She would really have regretted that whole "love" thing if she had to work for a living the rest of her days. She will be a princess after all.

These movies also suppose two things. First, that rich, high-class people are incapable of being fun and exciting without also being callous and evil. And poor people can never be intelligent and interesting unless they are also very good looking. In Becoming Jane, this interesting good-looking lower class peasant is played by James McEvoy (Last King of Scotland). The script wants us to know, constantly, that we are talking about JANE AUSTEN here, and so it makes Anne Hathaway into a rather irritating screen character. She speaks in gigantic words all the time, and is so condescending to everyone outside her immediate family that one takes an immediate disliking to her. It's supposed to show her "rebellious, girl with a mind" nature, really it makes her officious and annoying. The seduction scenes between her and McEvoy are painful in their attempts to be dialogue-clever. I promis, Jane Austen did not talk like this in real life. And I wasn't even there.

In the end, Becoming Jane is a movie every one of us has seen hundreds, maybe thousands of times (many of them with Anne Hathaway). It's the oldest story in movies, and to pretend you're talking about a real human being, a literary titan such as Jane Austen, is insulting to the viewer. And to Jane Austen. Are we to believe this romance shaped her entire life and gave us all her books? That she never existed outside the framework of this relationship? Remember - she's a real person, we KNOW how this ends. Far more interesting would have been watching her attempt to become a writer! She is a woman, it's 1795 - it's going to be tough to get people to read her stuff, to publish her, to use her name, a female name, on the books! That would have been far more interesting than just taking the easiest story in Hollywood and trying to make a real person fit that story. Don't watch this movie. Just read Persuasion and Mansfield Park and enjoy those.

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