Poor sense, little sensibility
Austenland is the movie equivalent of a beach read, a digestible distraction that demands little effort and puts forth even less. It’s a film that should only be watched while engaging in a secondary activity, like folding laundry or untangling Christmas lights. Although immersed in her universe, Austenland requires no intimacy with the work of Jane Austen. Look for your deeply embedded Mansfield Park references elsewhere.
The undeniably adorable Keri Russell stars as Jane, a movie-messy, 30-something bachelorette obsessed with all things Austen, especially the aloof Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice. Her apartment is draped in Austen kitsch, including a life-size cutout of Colin Firth as Darcy, and her out-of-control “hobby” has driven a wedge in all of her real-life relationships.
After getting dumped by the latest in a series of disinterested boyfriends, Jane trades in her life savings for a vacation to Austenland, an all-inclusive country estate and fantasy resort where guests and staff role-play as Austen-esque characters in full costume. The central conceit of Austenland is a lot like that of Westworld, the 1973 film about a futuristic theme park—except with corsets instead of cowboy boots, human actors instead of robots, and only the audience’s brain cells are brutally murdered.
Jane goes to Austenland to experience grandeur and opulence, but her lowest-tier vacation package forces her into the role of a penniless ward. Every guest at Austenland is promised a nonsexual “romantic experience” by the austere company head (Jane Seymour). The guileless Jane forms a true-to-character instant dislike of the actor playing the arrogant Mr. Darcy figure (JJ Feild), and begins a flirtation with the resort’s sweet handyman (Bret McKenzie from Flight of the Conchords).
Russell’s effortless likeability in the lead gives the film more juice than it deserves, and the always amusing Jennifer Coolidge offers game support as a fellow guest and ally to Jane. Usually confined to bit parts, Coolidge mines so much material out of her vulgar-dimwit routine, it borders on environmentally irresponsible. It is always amusing to hear the pneumatic Coolidge blare naughty non sequiturs in that inimitable baby-doll fishwife voice, but a little bit of her goes a long way.
Clearly, Austenland was not designed for my demographic, but lest I be accused of male bias, let’s just consider the gender-opposite film. It would probably star Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson as middle-aged horn dogs who attend a fantasy frat house resort, and it would also be a bad movie (notes to self: Pitch this idea to a studio executive posthaste, make millions of dollars, learn how to snort cocaine).
This particular bad movie is co-written and directed by Jerusha Hess, the creator (along with husband Jared Hess) of such diminishing returns as Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre and the genuinely contemptible Gentlemen Broncos. Although Austenland mostly moves to the expected beats of a contemporary romantic comedy, Hess can’t resist smearing her auteur stamp all over the film.
How else to explain the tone-deaf gags about sheep-eyeball consumption, chamber-pot usage and Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” in an otherwise innocuous love story? Every time Austenland starts to build up affection for the characters, Hess indulges in some juvenile low comedy. At one point, a character lounges poolside wearing a giant, flame-painted cowboy hat, seemingly for no other reason than the fact that giant, flame-painted cowboy hats are funnier than normal hats.
On the other hand, the tonal jolts are the most notable thing about Austenland, and without them, I’d be using this space to complain about an absence of surprises amid the barrage of rom-com clichés. But the goofiness of Austenland quickly becomes pandering, especially in the overuse of incongruous ’80s pop songs on the soundtrack. By the end, the movie reeks of desperation and rewrites—there are at least three endings and two in-credits “stinger” sequences in the last 10 minutes.
A smart and funny movie about prolonged adolescence and wish fulfillment is buried somewhere deep in Austenland, but Hess was probably too busy sound-mixing fart noises to dig it out. As it stands, Austenland is a dumb but generally harmless watch, and this rating could even be bumped up a notch if movie theaters would permit patrons to bring in their unfolded laundry and tangled Christmas lights.