Jane Austen’s literary works continue to provide an endless source of material for screen adaptations. Director Autumn de Wilde’s Emma starring Anya Taylor-Joy as the title character, was released to enthusiastic reviews earlier this year. Now there’s the new romantic comedy Modern Persuasion, an updating of Austen’s 1817 novel Persuasion aimed less at the PBS crowd and more at Millennials.
Directed Alex Appel and Jonathan Lisecki from a script by Lisecki and Barbara Radecki, Modern Persuasion is a very loose Austen adaptation that shifts the acton to a sleek but struggling Manhattan family start-up owned by foppish Grayson Keller (Mark Moses) and Maxine Keller-Lynch (Jenn Harris). But it is Wren Cosgrove (Alicia Witt) who keeps this “eccentric” office running. She’s the modern version of the novel’s intelligent but unmarried, and therefore a social pariah, Anne Elliot.
We know Wren is the engine that drives the company because she lives alone with a cat named Wentworth and makes power drinks in a blender before her morning run. Other than the dapper Grayson, the workplace is staffed by hip female millennials meant to check off diversity boxes but that border on cringe-worthy stereotypes. There’s the no nonsense Asian assistant; the lesbian couple expecting a baby; and the sarcastic Black secretary played by the talented Adrienne C. Moore who does her best with a caricature of a role.
Wren’s predictable life is upended when her ex-boyfriend Owen (Shane McRae), now a super successful entrepreneur, strolls in to propose a mega-partnership. This, of course, roils Wren’s world. The rest of the film is the usual assemblage of generic rom-com scenes such as a party where romantic signals get crossed; confrontations and confessions in the women’s bathroom; a weekend in the Hamptons; and finally a reconciliation complete with poetry recitations.
There’s no cliche left unturned except the heartbroken heroine gorging on a carton of ice cream. A bright spot is the presence of Bebe Neuwirth as Wren’s well-connected Aunt, filling in for Austen’s Lady Russell, who advised the young heroine against marriage to a man she thought unworthy of her. Neuwirth is such a pro she delivers tepid dialogue with a welcome dash of spice. Her performance, along with Witt’s, are positive aspects of Modern Persuasion. But this updating pales next to the more faithful screen adaptation Persuasion (1995) directed by Roger Michell, with Amanda Root as Anne Elliot, a “spinster” at 27, and Ciarán Hinds as her ex-fiancé Capt. Frederick Wentworth. There may not be any millennial text-speak but it is about unspoken communication, a form of persuasion that makes it truer to Austen’s literary genius.