“What separates the casual Austen fan from the aficionado?” Set at a resort for women that embeds its customers in a role-playing re-creation of the Regency era, “Austenland,” a romantic comedy, answers its own question by example over the next fitfully amusing, frequently excruciating 97 minutes. Surely any real aficionado of Jane Austen would reject the film’s notion that the author’s literary masterworks are essentially wish-fulfillment fantasies for readers too timid for the red-blooded bodice-rippers of the Harlequin line — for women who would prefer being escorted on the arm of Mr. Darcy to being exsanguinated in the embrace of Fabio.
A romantic comedy about 30-something, single Jane Hayes, a seemingly normal young woman with a secret: her obsession with all things Jane Austen. But when ...
Rating: PG-13 for some suggestive content and innuendo
Length: 97 minutes
Released: August 16, 2013 NY/LA
Cast: Keri Russell, JJ Feild, Jennifer Coolidge, Bret McKenzie, Georgia King
Director: Jerusha Hess
Writer: Jerusha Hess
Keri Russell is one such woman. Appearing especially wan, even mousy, Russell stars as Jane (of course) Hayes, a “30-plus, clock-ticking” office worker whose frustrated would-be boyfriends discover they can’t compete with the life-size Colin Firth standee she keeps near her bedroom.
Eager for true love and obsessed with Austen (or, from the evidence here, the 1995 BBC adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice”), Jane sinks her savings into a trip to Austenland, a sort of theme park for apparently desperate women. Described by its manager-doyenne (Jane Seymour) as “the world’s only immersive Austen experience,” the park ensconces its guests in an English manor house (the humiliated Jane, who bought the cut-rate “copper package,” gets a room in the servant’s quarters), where they are more or less innocently wooed by actors portraying various Austen-esque men. As the least objectionable of three paying guests (how does this place stay in business?), Jane finds herself torn between the possibilities offered by a phlegmatic Darcy type (JJ Feild) and a dashing, overtly amorous “stableboy” (Bret McKenzie), who appears to have wandered over from an adjacent D.H. Lawrenceland.
Adapted by director Jerusha Hess and writer Shannon Hale from Hale’s 2007 novel, “Austenland” squanders a promising premise. (One can’t help wishing that Mel Brooks in his prime had taken on the period costume-drama genre, or that perhaps instead of actors “Austenland” was populated by malfunctioning robots, a la “Westworld.”) What kills the film isn’t its dumbing-down of Austen’s appeal but its inconsistency of tone and clumsiness of construction. Hess, making his debut as a director, is a clever screenwriter, as he demonstrated with his first movie, “Napoleon Dynamite,” and the subsequent “Nacho Libre,” but he seems to lack confidence as well as competence behind the camera. Austenland’s guests are instructed to “eschew” all things modern, but Hess ignores his own screenplay’s advice, scoring scenes with manipulative and inappropriate pop songs. In one particularly awful scene, a postmakeover Jane enters a drawing room to the sounds of Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes,” an inexplicable choice: Jane doesn’t have Bette Eyes, nor is her hair Harlow gold, nor does she know just what it takes to make a pro blush. (She can curtsy, though.)
In another jarring scene, Jane is encouraged by her fellow guests to take a turn at the piano. She only knows one song, she says, so she begins playing and singing Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” (“It’s getting hot in here/ So take off all your clothes”). For the sake of a cheap laugh, Jane is made to act in a way that is entirely out of character. (Worse, a less imaginative and more clichéd “shocking” song choice is impossible to imagine.) The embarrassment continues during the closing credits, when the entire cast, in its finest 19th century dress, is made to take part in a karaoke pantomime to the Nelly hit.
Thank goodness, then, for the frightening and hilarious Jennifer Coolidge as a gauche fellow guest who responds to a mention of “Pride and Prejudice” by asking: “What’s that?” As the pneumatic middle-aged JWoww of Austenland, Coolidge’s character admits she chose this vacation spot because she believed she’d look good in “wench gowns”; her idea of aping old-school English sophistication is to adopt a broad cockney accent for such utterances as: “Colonel, you really are a saucy monkey!” She steals the movie to the extent that you wish it were her story, not that of Jane Hayes.
Among the production companies responsible for “Austenland” is Fickle Fish Films, a creation of Stephenie Meyer, author of the “Twilight” series. Meyer, of course, is no Jane Austen, but one wonders if the film is especially personal for her — a response to the “Team Jacob” and “Team Edward” fans more interested in mooning over thoughts of her heroes’ bare torsos than in her books’ actual prose.
“Austenland” is at Malco’s Ridgeway Four.