Love & Friendship **

Ostensibly a comedy, this smug Jane Austen adaptation inspires little mirth.

Is it worth $10? No

Some movies are so unmemorable one forgets them moments after exiting the theater. “Love & Friendship” isn’t one of them. It’s worse. I forgot about it while still watching the movie. Based on a lesser-known novella by Jane Austen, it has the hallmarks of her more famous works (“Sense and Sensibility,” “Pride and Prejudice”), but it never comes close to their level of quality. The notes are all there but the melody isn’t.

“A Vernon will never go hungry.” These words are uttered by the movie’s (anti) heroine, and they basically sum up the plot. It’s the 1790s, England, and Lady Susan (a lively Kate Beckinsale) is recently widowed. With only a notorious reputation to her name, she survives by imposing on (richer) relatives. After living up to her reputation once again, she ends up at her stepbrother’s home. There, she uses her cunning and feminine wiles to try and secure a comfortable future the only way she can: by landing a rich husband. Oh, and if she can find one for her shy daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), that would be great, too. 

“Love & Friendship” features neither love nor friendship, not in any meaningful way at least. What it does have is wit. Lots of wit. An abundance of overbearing, stinking wit. Every line, every word is some kind of a glib remark that demonstrates a character’s idiocy or is a response to said idiocy. And since just about every character is an idiot, self-involved or some kind of lethal combination of the two, there’s a whole lot of glibness to go around. Nothing meaningful or heartfelt is said until the very end, and the endless sarcasm before that brief respite is just tiring. The movie has one note, which it plays incessantly, like some demented child hammering on the same piano key over and over (“Smash the beetles,” indeed).

With most everybody a fool, and the only sympathetic characters so thinly written they barely evince notice, there’s nobody to really care about, least of all Lady Susan, the main character. With her cunning and manipulative ways, especially in response to unfair societal rules that force her to use those weapons just to survive, she could be an appealing anti-heroine, but she’s not. She’s cold to her daughter, thoughtless to her friends, and as underdeveloped as everything else in the movie. 

She’s so unpleasant that I dismissed her from the beginning as a bitch. Look, I don’t like using that word because of its misogynistic undertones, but I think its use is fair here: 15 minutes into the movie I looked over at my mom, who’d accompanied me and had just nudged my arm. This woman has an aversion to swearing so severe she can barely bring herself to say, “Sam Huston Institute of Technology,” yet here she looked at me and said… “What a bitch!” I don’t think she was referring to me, so, yes, Lady Susan is that, and, sadly, doesn’t develop into anything more interesting.

Nothing in the movie develops into anything remotely interesting. Writer, director Whit Stillman takes a short story, never bothers to flesh it or its characters out, then stretches it to the breaking point with a feature length runtime and delivers a visually flat film (usually there’s a least a pastoral beauty to be enjoyed in Austen’s adaptations, but not here) that’s overbearingly smug.

There are some bright spots. The pace is quick (though with so little story, how could it not be?), and the actors above par, with Tom Bennett as the uber-idiot, Sir James Martin, Frederica’s jilted “un-intended,” standing out of the pack. He is amusing and the movie brightens up with every extended bit of his buffoonery. The costumes are also nice, and there are witticisms throughout that are funny, though few result in actual laughs. Instead they mostly elicit short, sharp exhalations through the nose that act less as laughter and more as mere signifiers that something vaguely funny has happened.

The commercials for this film are touting its 100% approval rating on “Rotten Tomatoes,” a review aggregate site (though now it stands at 99%, so take that, commercial!). Obviously, my opinion is in direct opposition with that of at least 91 other critics. I feel, dear reader, you should know this. If they all loved it, you may too. But I stand by my review. And, frankly, I’m a little flabbergasted. I cannot fathom what they saw in this film that inspired their positive reviews. I’m very familiar with Austen’s works and a big fan of them and many of their filmic adaptations. But I’m definitely not a fan of this one!

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