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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

No rom, no com

The opening credits of Modern Persuasion, which began streaming Friday on a small screen near you, scroll through a litany of actors, producers, screenwriters, directors. . . and yet one name is strangely absent. That would be the name of Jane Austen, on whose last completed novel this pallid, charm-free update is based.

And yet Modern Persuasion actually hews closer to Austen’s plot and characters than do many other alleged Austen spinoffs. (I’m looking at you, Pride, Prejudice and Mistletoe.) Wren is a fortyish singleton who, years earlier, took her aunt’s advice and dumped her college boyfriend, Owen. Now he’s the CEO who hires her struggling PR company to launch his new social networking site – meanwhile flirting energetically with her hot young colleague, while Wren bonds with his melancholy, age-appropriate deputy.

Along the way to the foregone conclusion, there are Jane Austen Easter eggs aplenty. Wren works for a struggling family business called Keller Keller Lynch, whose straitened finances have forced a relocation from Manhattan to Brooklyn. Owen runs a flourishing Silicon Valley-based enterprise called Laconia. Her glum cat is named Wentworth. His glum colleague is named Benson. There’s a vain, profligate older man and a smarmy, insinuating younger one, a scheming sycophant and a worrisome head injury.

Alas, our heroine, Wren (Alicia Witt), is a mildly annoying cliché, the workaholic spinster whose life revolves around her cat. Our hero, Owen (Shane McRae), is a bland cipher with zero charisma. Together, the two give off fewer sparks than a string of faulty Christmas lights. Meanwhile, the script’s idea of witty banter is to have a character remark that Brooklyn’s air “smells like hipster.” OK, I’ll admit that I did giggle when Wren and the heartbroken Benson discover a shared love of Joy Division and the Smiths, in place of their prototypes’ bonding over the saddest bits of Byron and Scott. But for the most part, this is a romcom lacking both rom and com.

Although Modern Persuasion was apparently intended for theatrical release until COVID came along and bid goodbye to all that, the production values are not much better than standard-issue Hallmark Channel. A fancy gala in the Hamptons looks about as chic as a middle-school dance, and Wren, the successful New York PR professional, seems to wear only baby-girl ruffled shirt-fronts and garish old-lady flower prints. Even a newborn infant is represented by an unconvincing swaddle of blankets. Apparently, the budget didn’t stretch to an actual baby.

But the most serious shortcoming is the one that bedevils so many Persuasion updates: As I’ve noted before, it’s difficult to make sense of Austen’s central conflict – love vs. duty, passion vs. prudence, all that jazz – in a modern world with such different social, economic, and gender expectations.

This time around, we’re asked to believe that Wren’s aunt discouraged her from giving up a post-college internship and moving to San Francisco with Owen because “no man should ask you to put his career ahead of yours.” Fair enough, but – no one floated a compromise? A West Coast internship? A long-distance relationship? A move in six months? Keeping in touch over email? None of it makes much sense, and Wren’s palpable unhappiness undermines the supposedly feminist message. You think you can have it all, girlfriend? Ha! It’s work or love, baby, not both! Nor is it clear why, after those long years of separation, the still-lovelorn Owen decides to get closer to his ex by flying across the country and hiring her company. Why doesn’t he just stalk her on social media, like a normal person?

At least one mystery gets cleared up by the end: Stick around for the final credits, in which cartoon Instagram posts fill in the cozy aftermath of Wren and Owen’s reconciliation, and you’ll glimpse one that reads, “Based on Jane Austen’s #Persuasion.” Given what’s on screen here, however, maybe Austen was better off as a silent partner.

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