The plot is uninspired and confused, and the film fails to deliver the Austen fan service the title promises. But hell, at least it made me laugh.
Jerusha and Jared Hess are the husband and wife filmmaker duo that brought us the off-kilter comedies Gentlemen Broncos, Nacho Libre, and most famously Napoleon Dynamite. Jerusha tries her hand at solo directing with Austenland, a rom-com that exchanges odd for broad, having big fun while never delving too deeply into, well, anything really. It’s approachable, straightforward humor that’s a delight, especially if you’re the type that’s not too ashamed to laugh at a fart joke now and again (like me.) The characters are poorly written (but well acted), the plot is uninspired and confused, and the film fails to deliver the Austen fan service the title promises. But hell, at least it made me laugh.
Our heroine is Jane (shocker!) Hayes (Keri Russell, automatically likable), a nine-to-five New Yorker who’s been a Jane Austen addict her whole life. Mr. Darcy, Austen’s dashing, debonair creation from Pride and Prejudice, represents the perfect man to Jane, and she won’t settle for a lesser man. It’s a deep obsession—she’s even got a cardboard cutout of Colin Firth (who played Darcy in the BBC production) in her bedroom, which is covered wall-to-wall with pastel Austen memorabilia, antique picture frames, teacups, and frilly dolls. It’s like an Austen-themed of Hoarders. Plus, as evidence that she literally wants to meet the fictional Darcy and make love to him, spelled in big letters above her bed are the words “Darcy was here.” Kinda creepy, but Russell reels you back in with her unassuming charm.
Pressured by a concerned friend, Jane attempts to exercise her Austen obsession by blowing her life savings on a trip to England, where she’ll be a guest in Austenland, a sort of experimental role-playing amusement park. In the park—run by the rigid, passively cruel Jane Seymour (painfully underutilized)—the paid actors and guests immerse themselves completely in everything Austen, from sipping tea, to squeezing into corsets, to acting out faux romances straight out of Austen’s novels.
The only other guest aside from Jane is the unfathomably vapid and pea-brained Elizabeth, played by none other than the born-to-be-funny Jennifer Coolidge. Jane attempts to connect with Elizabeth through their shared fanaticism, proudly sharing that she memorized the first three chapters of Pride and Prejudice when she was thirteen. Coolidge replies with a ditzy giggle and a hilariously ignorant “What’s that?” As always, she plays a great bimbo, committing to the character’s stupidity wholeheartedly, trying on a pitifully inaccurate English accent, vomiting asinine observations, and generally providing giant laughs at will. The film is lucky to have her.
When the ladies arrive at the park, Elizabeth gets full-on 1800’s pamper treatment, while Jane, who inadvertently signed up for the least-expensive Austenland Copper Package, is relegated to being garbed in drab, unflattering brown dresses and bunking in what looks to be a servants room, or “creepy tower”, as Elizabeth so eloquently puts it.
Elizabeth gets romantically paired with the flamboyant Colonel Andrews (James Callis, Battlestar Galactica) who fights to keep his frightful disgust for Elizabeth’s mammoth bosom suppressed. Jane’s affections are split between smooth-talking stable boy Martin (Flight of the Chonchords‘ Bret McKenzie) and the Darcy stand-in Henry Nobly (JJ Field), who’s barely participating and seems utterly bored with the whole masquerade. It’s a dull, saccharine, low-stakes love triangle that ends up just the way you expect it to. Georgia King (The New Normal) plays a flagrantly, cartoonishly English maiden and provides some of the film’s biggest laughs with her theatrical prancing and preening.
What kept needling at me throughout Austenland was how bizarrely uninterested in her surroundings Jane seems. She’s supposedly an Austen super-fan—Austenland should be the manifestation of all her wildest dreams. And yet, she chats with her friend on her snuck-in cell phone, doesn’t even attempt an English accent, listens to tunes on a stereo with Martin, and grows tired of the place within a day. Russell does her best with the sloppy material, and her charisma is strong enough to carry us through to the end. The film’s humor is what keeps the ship afloat, and while it’s admittedly sophomoric (never cleverer than a typical modern SNL skit), it’s delivered skillfully by an experienced cast and hit the sweet spot for me. This is big comedy, not cringe comedy, which is refreshing nowadays.
I feel sorry for all the true Austen fans going into Austenland expecting a celebration of the late, great writer’s work—Pride and Prejudice is the only novel ever referenced, and any Austen influence is merely surface-level. The brilliant premise would have led a more capable filmmaker to make something better, but the inexperienced Hess must have gotten tripped-up along the way, producing a movie much less interesting than it should have been. Still, Hess’ bread and butter shines through; the silly, elastic facial expressions, the shameless pratfalls, witty exchanges, and Coolidge’s golden one-liners kept me laughing all the way through and saved the experience from being a regrettable one.