Austenland (2013) / Comedy-Romance
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for some suggestive content and innuendo
Running Time: 97 min.
Cast: Keri Russell, Jennifer Coolidge, Bret McKenzie, JJ Feild, Jane Seymour, Georgia King, James Callis, Ricky Whittle
Director: Jerusha Hess
Screenplay: Jerusha Hess, Shannon Hale (based on her novel)
Review published September 14, 2013
Based on the 2007 novel by Shannon Hale, who contributes to the screenplay, Austenland is both an homage to one of the most beloved authors among many women (and some men) today, and also the hope that Austen's cult-like popularity in the U.S. will translate into crossover appeal for this independent production to go toe to toe with the studio films among her legion of readers. Unfortunately, for those who love all things Austen, the film that celebrates her popular works falls short of the mark in both comedy and romance, capturing the look but not the spirit of the novels, pushing their the semblance of their plots and characters through some pretty downright embarrassing modern-era gags to try to drum up a few silly laughs.
Keri Russell (Waitress, MI3) stars as Jane Hayes, an American woman who has been utterly obsessed with all things Jane Austen nearly her entire life. When it is called to her attention that there is an English theme park, dubbed "Austenland", that promises the ultimate Jane Austen experience for those willing to pay its sizable vacation package price, Jane is willing to save every penny, as well as sell just about everything she owns not related to the author, to secure a ticket. The park promises to completely immerse its guests into living like a character in one of Austen's novels, as they rub elbows with paid actors that play the archetypical roles of the romantic Mr. Darcy-types and the like, eventually being wooed by one like an interactive role-playing versiion of "The Dating Game". While Jane's fantasies have often derailed her real-life pursuits of the opposite sex, real life might derail her one and only chance to court the man of her fantasies when she begins to fall for one of the park's employees.
In addition to being a disappointment for Jane Austen fans, rom-com favorite Keri Russell doesn't come out unscathed herself, though it's not really her fault that her flavorlessly scatterbrained and borderline-cuckoo character is written to be more than a bit of a starry-eyed ignoramus, whose only shred of personality comes through her obsession with a collection of six books, leading to the evaporation of her love life. After all, what man can compete with Mr. Darcy, the epitome of emotionally brooding but dreamily gallant lovers? And, what potential suitor could find any avenue of conversation with a woman who literally has no depth to discuss any other topics?
The supporting cast fares no better, with Jennifer Coolidge recreating both her ditzy cougar-on-the-prowl characters from Legally Blonde and American Pie combined. Jane Seymour (Wedding Crashers, Somewhere in Time) plays the steely Austenland owner and manager, whose sole job other than spokeswoman consists of seething insults any of her guests who deem to come to the park paying for the discount package.
The would-be suitors don't have much to build on, with JJ Feild's (Captain America, K-19) Darcy-ish Henry Nobley character basically doing an impression of Colin Firth's famous turn from the BBC miniseries of "Pride and Prejudice", James Callis's ("Battlestar Galactica", Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason) googly-eyed gay actor trying his best to escape the lusty clutches of Coolidge's Elizabeth, and late-comer Ricky Whittle ("Single Ladies", "Dream Team") adding some guy-candy as the male stripper hired to add some sizzle for the female patrons to gaze upon should they desire any of the stuffier suitors. Groundskeeper Martin, played without much comedic verve by "Flight of the Conchords"-alum Bret McKenzie (The Hobbit) , entertains a romance with Jane, but outside of a terrible attempt croon along to Billy Ocean in his private abode, and delivering a foal from time to time, there's not much personality to make anyone think he'd be an interesting love interest for a woman who can't see beyond Austen's ideals.
Austenland marks the first production credit for another well-known female author of her day, Stephanie Meyer, whose "Twilight" series of books is no doubt consumed by a good portion of the same readers as Jane Austen's books today. The lack of expertise shows in nearly every frame, as Austenland, unlike nearly every adaptation of Austen's novels, suffers from murky cinematography and dim lighting unbefitting the normally breathtaking environs we'd expect from a Regency-era homage.
But it isn't the lack of quality capturing of its costumes and landscapes that makes Austenland an inferior work, it's the clunky, fits-and-starts first directorial effort of Jerusha Hess (screenwriter for Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre), who contributes to the screenplay as well. The herky-jerky tempo starts off without much panache, often lifting from the style of Sofia Coppola, especially her Marie Antoinette, which captured olden figures set to pop music of the early 1980s, which Hess ostensibly uses more to get toes tapping in its (most likely) middle-aged-and-up female audience. The dialogue lacks the cracking wit one would expect from its subject matter, shading in most of the humor with a bodice-ripping bawdiness, sex-tinged innuendo largely lacking in Austen's works, silly slapstick, and forced reaction shots of its characters, as if making funny faces might be enough to give the semblance of humor when the screenplay does not.
Austenland might only have a modest appeal for those who've read and appreciate the works of Jane Austen -- audiences who'll likely be sporadically entertained by the various allusions and thematic recreations to compare to the stories and characters they know through and through (though they might wonder why the Austen experience is painted in such flirtatiously brazen, sexualized way, with a troupe of actors who dress for the 19th century but who act more like 21st-century gigolos.) While it's difficult to imagine many within this demographic who will be just as enamored of Austenland as any of the excellent adaptations of Austen's classics, it's downright impossible to think that someone wholly unfamiliar with Austen could glean enough entertainment value to consider this nonstop cavalcade of homage time well spent. Or money well spent, for that matter; keeping one's ticket-price dollars and cents has much more sensibility.
©2013 Vince Leo