Let me preface this by saying that I really, really wanted to love this movie. In fact, I begged to be allowed to review it for Fangirlish. I’m a huge fan of Jane Austen’s novels. I’ve come to appreciate “Persuasion” – and its underlying messages about regret and the endurance of love – more as I’ve grown older. As I’ve always felt it to be one of her under-appreciated novels, I was thrilled when I first heard about Modern Persuasion. I’ve always been a firm believer that every adaptation, even mediocre ones, have something to recommend them, even if it’s just in opening up the world of these stories to a new audience. Plus, with as bad as 2020 has been, I figured any new content was worthy of providing some measure of joy! But, man, this movie made a liar out of me.
For those who are unfamiliar with this lesser-known (and last fully completed) Austen novel, “Persuasion” is the story of Anne Elliot, daughter of Sir Walter Elliot of Kellynch Hall. The novel takes place seven years after Anne is persuaded to break off her engagement to Frederick Wentworth, and the story begins when he reappears into her life. The climactic scene, revolving around a letter, is one of the most memorable romantic scenes in literature.
To its credit, I suppose, Modern Persuasion does a fair job of updating this story to a more contemporary setting. All the same beats are there, from the prior breakup, to the current romantic misunderstandings, to the all-important letter (or text message, in this case). Fans of “Persuasion” will easy see the inspiration that led to this movie. Whether they consider that to be a good thing or not is less certain. (The movie does give a couple of nods to the source material, though doing so leads to the line, “Do they even make [books] anymore?” so, you know, still not sure that’s a net positive.)
It’s really hard to say where this movie first goes wrong, so I’ll try to start with what it does right. The casting is…fine. I don’t know that anyone does a standout job, but I can’t put that on the actors. They do the best they can with a dismal script. And with as bad as the script is, the fact they manage anything at all means they all deserve some measure of praise. (But, seriously, Bebe Neuwirth, you need to talk to your agent. You’re definitely better than this.)
So what makes this movie so bad? It’s hard to know where to start. Okay, it isn’t. It’s the script. The script is astonishingly terrible. Yes, it’s cheesy, but that’s actually not a problem for me. I unironically will watch 72 straight hours of Lifetime and Hallmark and Netflix Christmas movies and have no apology for it. It’s…just about everything else in the script that’s the problem.
I’m a little older, and characters in their 20s come off like they were written by someone my age, who hadn’t actually conversed with people in their 20s since at least the 1990s. I’ve been reassured by people on Twitter that, yes, apparently words like “probs” and “totes” (and maybe even “obvi” and “geek on fleek” and “shady shots fired, G”) are still used today. I seriously doubt that they use all of them so unrelentingly. Maybe I’m showing my age, but there were entire conversations that I just found myself thinking, “I don’t think anyone that age talks like that. I just don’t.” But, hey, maybe I’m wrong. So let’s put that aside.
Have you ever watched a movie or read a book and felt like, “The writer of this is aggressively trying to pretend that they’re “woke?” If not, maybe give Modern Persuasion a try and you’ll see what I mean. (Or don’t, and just take my word on it. I wouldn’t want to inflict this movie upon anyone else.) There is just something that feels disingenuous when the characters point out sexism in such lines as (paraphrasing), “If you want to try being objectified, try being a woman,” and “men won’t say it, but they secretly want women who are young and silent.” Let alone “let’s not assume the baby’s gender identity.” Maybe it’s the dichotomy of forced “wokeness” and tongue-in-cheek dismissiveness of people in their 20s, the age demographic the movie presumably targets, with Blooper as the ‘Twitter for people with even shorter attention spans and even worse ADHD.”
Yeah, I’m paraphrasing again, but you can’t pay me to go back and rewatch scenes to get exact quotes. As it is, I want my $7 rental fee back, with additional damages for pain and suffering.
But let’s talk about where this movie goes from cringe to “I regret everything in my life that brought me to the decision to watch this” territory. Look. Let me make one thing clear: Hanging a lampshade on something terrible in a movie doesn’t make it less terrible.
If this movie proves anything, it’s the importance of diversity and authenticity both in front of and behind the camera. Now, I say this acknowledging that I’m a White woman. I’m whiter than a glass of milk in a snowstorm. I’m whiter than Mike Pence. (Just kidding. I doubt anyone’s whiter than Mike Pence. And I say that being from his home state of Indiana.) When it comes to issues of racism, it’s my job to listen more than it is to insert my opinion.
But I can’t help but think that having Adrienne C. Moore‘s only Black female character in the film (at least with anything approaching a significant – if it can be called that – amount of screen time) make both a KKK and a lynching joke in the same 30 second span is…probably not great. And I’m sure the writers of the screenplay (Jonathan Lisecki and Barbara Radecki) thought it was okay to have another WOC (played by Liza Lapira) make a Not Okay joke about how her pregnancy made her so bloated, she could star in the sequel to Precious. Because, hey, the person making the joke is another WOC, and also because the Moore’s character immediately called it out for being Not Okay! But I’m just not sure that makes it any better, let alone anything approaching okay.
I hate to say it, but if you’re an Austen fan looking for new content, maybe hold off for the Jane Austen anthology series reportedly in development at the CW. As hard as it is to believe, given the network’s notoriously questionable reputation, it still might be better than this. And if you want to see a version of “Persuasion” that doesn’t make 87 minutes feel like 87 years, I recommend the version starring Amanda Root. Either way, give this one a well-deserved pass.
Modern Persuasion is available on streaming platforms today.