There are a few flashes of wit in the romantic comedy Austenland, but for the most part, the humor lands not with Dear Jane’s grace and style but with all the subtlety of a cholera outbreak.
Keri Russell stars as Jane Hayes, a single woman in her 30s who has taken fandom to a new level (or depth, depending on your point of view). She’s obsessed by Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, not so much the novel as the 1990s BBC miniseries in which Colin Firth made history in a pond in a wet white shirt. His Mr. Darcy is Jane’s perfect man — she has a cardboard cutout of him in her living room and “Darcy rocks” in block letters on the wall of her bedroom, and yes, I did say she was in her 30s — and apparently she’d rather watch that wet shirt scene for the thousandth time than make out with a date. Although the fact that she’s watching a six-hour miniseries on a date might explain why her love life is in ruins.
So Jane empties her bank account for a vacation at a Jane Austen resort in England, where guests can indulge in various Regency activities (crocheting, taking turns around the garden, defeating Napoleon at Waterloo). The women can expect an era-appropriate romance with one of the actors hired by the proprietor, Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour). In one of the film’s best running jokes, Mrs. Wattlesbrook informs Jane that the basic package she purchased doesn’t entitle her to the best room, the best gowns or, presumably, the best Darcy clone, Henry Nobley (JJ Feild) (it does apparently include attempted sexual assault, however). In any case, Jane almost doesn’t care about what she’s missing when a friendly hired hand (Bret McKenzie, Flight of the Conchords) looks her way.
Based on the novel by Shannon Hale, who also co-wrote the screenplay, Austenland has amusing moments, such as when the women realize the Regency period involved more needlework than is sane for any modern woman. But too often the movie relies on broad, sitcom comedy, much of it provided by Jennifer Coolidge in full sexpot mode as Elizabeth Charming (not her real name), another American guest at the resort. Someone, I’m not sure who, thinks Coolidge sputtering “Tally ho!” in a bad Cockney accent, making predictable off-color jokes and groping men is hilarious, but the part is only a small step up from her role on 2 Broke Girls and not a big step at that.
Coolidge has made a living playing this character, and I don’t begrudge her the work, but the film would’ve done better to focus on potentially funny stuff, like the Austenesque interplay between Jane and Nobley at dinner, the interaction between the male actors when they’re not playing their parts or Bret McKenzie doing, well, anything.
Eventually, Jane has to choose between the possibility of real romance and the allure of fantasy (turns out she’s not quite ready to let go of her Mr. Darcy dreams). The love triangle that develops is good fun, but the script ends up giving it short shrift. Like Pride and Prejudice, Austenland does provide the required happy ending but unlike that classic story, you will have no desire to revisit it.
Cast: Keri Russell, JJ Feild, Bret McKenzie, Jennifer Coolidge, James Callis.
Director: Jerusha Hess.
Screenwriters: Jerusha Hess, Shannon Hale. Based on the novel by Hale.
Producers: Stephenie Meyer, Gina Mingacci.
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 97 minutes. Some suggestive content, innuendo. Opens Friday Aug. 30 in Miami-Dade: Sunset Place, Regal South Beach.