There is much to dislike in Jerusha Hess’ “Austenland” although the film is too insubstantial to deserve much attention except for the presence of actresses Keri Russell, Jennifer Coolidge and Jane Seymour.
Probably the single most annoying thing about “Austenland” is its attitude about Jane Austen herself and her literary fans. Austen’s realistic fiction and biting social commentary make her, to my way of thinking, the most modern and accessible of early-19th century authors.
While she of course wrote in the Regency era, her writing feels contemporary and not the fussy fiction one slogs through in English lit because they’re “classics.” One reads Austen for pure pleasure.
Yet this sophomoric comedy views Austen fans as silly romantics who revel in the social artifice of Regency-era memorabilia and obsess about finding a modern-day equivalent of “Pride and Prejudice’s” Mr. Darcy.
Kerri Russell plays one such addict who has turned her flat into a shrine to Darcy (the cutout of Colin Firth as Darcy is a nice touch) and can’t imagine a romance with any man who does not live up to his standards. She then puts her life on hold and hocks most her possessions to travel to a kind of Regency “Westworld” in England called Austenland where she can indulge in such obsessions.
At least she has actually read the novels. A wealthy fellow American played by Coolidge hasn’t even bothered. She just wants to look great in those “wench dresses,” apparently mistaking Regency dress for early the plunging 18th-century necklines in Tony Richardson’s “Tom Jones.”
In any event, Coolidge’s unique brand of broad clowning offset by Russell’s more demure, nuanced approach make “Austenland” at least bearable.
Seymour on the other hand gets wasted as Austenland’s stuffy proprietor, who promises every female visitor (no men apparently are welcome) a romance with one of the male actors on her staff.
Which leaves Russell’s Jane — yes, she has the same first name — seemingly stranded as there are three female visitors but the drawing room is equipped with only two male actors, a foppish Col. Andrews (James Callis) and a Darcy stand-in, snobbish Henry Nobley (JJ Field).
Evidently, Jane could only afford the Copper as opposed to the Platinum vacation package. She however takes matters in her own hand and launches an off-the-grid romance with Martin (Bret McKenzie), a mere hired hand who tends the livestock and lavish grounds of Austenland.
Director Jerusha Hess co-wrote the script with Shannon Hale, whose novel is the basis of the story. Laughs are few and far between unless Coolidge happens on the scene with her bad take on a British accent or other inappropriate bits of behavior.
The film does hold back some surprise as to which fake Austen suitor will wind up with Jane, but I’m not sure many will truly care one way or the other.
The male actors are mostly hammy especially Ricky Whittle, who enters the scene much later as narcissistic sea captain George East.
Were “Austenland” a parody of the overly earnest acting one associates with BBC costume dramas or English period pictures, the film might have earned a few chuckles. But, alas, the film spends most of its time straining for laughs that never come.
For the record, the film is produced by Stephanie Meyer of the “Twilight” novel and movie series and Hess previously co-wrrote “Napoleon Dynamite.” Make of that what you will.
I’m not sure why Sony Pictures Classics acquired this film after its debut at Sundance this year unless it has something to do with getting on the good side of hit makers. For Jane Austen fits nicely into SPC’s normal slate; an insipid comic confection such has “Austenland” does not.
Opens: August 16, 2013 In LA/NY (Sony Pictures Classics)
Production Companies: Fickle Fish Films, Moxie Pictures
Cast: Keri Russell, JJ Feild, Bret McKenzie, Jennifer Coolidge, James Callis, Georgia King, Rupert Vansittart, Ricky Whittle, Jane Seymour
Director: Jerusha Hess
Screenwriters: Jerusha Hess & Shannon Hale
Based on the novel by: Shannon Hale
Producers: Stephanie Meyer, Gina Mingacci
Executive producers: Dan Levinson, Robert Fernandez
Director of photography: Larry Smith
Production designer: James Merifield
Music: Ilan Eshkeri
Costume designer: Annie Hardinge
Editor: Nick Fenton
PG-13 rating, 97 minutes