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Whether or not you’re a devotee of Jane Austen’s novels, you should definitely avoid “Austenland,” a broad, witless romantic comedy based on Shannon Hale’s novel. It’s also the directing debut of Jerusha Hess, who co-wrote “Napoleon Dynamite” with her husband Jared, and one of its producers is Stephanie Meyer, of “Twilight” fame. With a pedigree like that, it’s little wonder it’s such a misfire.

Keri Russell stars as Jane Hayes, one of those attractive but socially inept women whose love life is nil—in other words, pure sitcom cliché. Plain Jane is also a fanatical fan of “Pride and Prejudice” and of handsome Mr. Darcy, who represents the perfect gentleman she pines over; indeed, her apartment is a virtual shrine to him, filled with as much bric-a-brac and as many figurines as a “Star Wars” obsessive might collect (including a life-sized cardboard cutout of Colin Firth in period BBC garb). It’s no wonder she’s willing to plunk down her entire life savings for a visit to the titular theme park, which promises the chance to wallow in the nineteenth-century ambience (and romantic plots) of Austen’s books, via a stately country venue and a properly costumed staff of actors and actresses.

One can imagine a sophisticated satire based on the premise of such a resort targeting lovelorn young women. But “Austenland” isn’t it. It’s a noisy, scattershot farce whose style and mood are exemplified in one of the other two women in Jane’s group, a rich, coarse American known only by the name she’s given upon the start of their stay, Elizabeth Charming. Jennifer Coolidge mugs her way through the role with all the subtlety of a bull charging through the streets on Pamplona, and though we’re supposed to find Elizabeth lovable, in her hands the character is simply obnoxious. The play-acting also links not-so-Charming up with sniveling fop Colonel Andrews (James Callis) in a twosome that increases the irritation exponentially.

As for Jane, unlike her companions she could afford only the cheapest tour package (“Copper” as opposed to “Platinum”), and so she’s stuck in the role of Miss Entwhistle, the fortune-less orphan who’s treated with disdain by the upper-crust gentry. That means that she’s not paired up with the Darcy-modeled Henry Nobley (JJ Field), who’s instead intended for blonde twit Amelia Heartwright (Georgia King), but is fated to cower on the edges of the phony drama, as much a spinster here as at home. Nonetheless some feelings emerge between her and Nobley even as she develops an “outsider” bond with handsome stableboy Martin (Bret McKenzie), whom she meets on excursions beyond the storytelling bubble concocted by the park’s haughty mistress Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour).

There are a couple of other actors roaming about the park, too: Captain George East (Ricky Whittle), a brawny fellow just back from a stint in the Queen’s Navy, and Mr. Wattlesbrook (Rupert Vansittart), a fellow with a roving eye (and hands) and a large appetite for spirits. Both characters border on Gilbert and Sullivan caricature and are played that way.

The problems with “Austenland” are many, but the two basic ones are consistency and tone. Even a farce requires some logic, but the script by Hess and Hale lacks any whatsoever; it plays more like a series of sketches that simply lurch into one another. (One could hardly accuse Austen’s novels of such clumsy construction.) And tonally it’s much too heavy-handed. One wants a touch of Austen’s delicacy (or Oscar Wilde’s sharpness), but what Hess gives us is a blunt, overwrought helping of “American Pie.” Where’s the archly humorous mode of the Ealing comedies when you need it? The result is a would-be homage that lacks both common sense and an appropriate sensibility.

Russell remains game throughout, a pleasant presence even as the rest of the cast (including the usually reliable Seymour) overdo things. And the production is reasonably attractive (James Merifield was production designer and Annie Hardinge designed the costumes, with Larry Smith providing the cinematography).

But “Austenland” is a region you should decline to visit, even if you too love “Pride and Prejudice.”


A sitcom elongated to excruciating feature length, “Divorce Invitation” travels through a couple of weirdly unseemly comic episodes before arriving at the third—indicated by the title—which is even more peculiarly unfunny. It’s a misfire on almost all counts.

Actually, the movie is more like three sitcoms uneasily strung together. The first is about the courtship of Michael (Jonathan Bennett) and Dylan Lipnicks (Jamie-Lynn Sigler). He’s a waiter at the restaurant run by her parents Paul (Elliott Gould) and Elaine (Lainie Kazan), who object to the romance because he’s not Jewish—a point emphasized by the fact that his family name is Christian. But he enthusiastically converts, and the wedding goes forward.

The second has to do with Michael crashing a posh country club in order to link up with possible investors for a business deal he and his partners have put together. That leads to his reconnecting with his high school sweetheart Alex (Nadia Bjorlin), a super-rich divorcee with who, it turns out, is as hot for him as he still is for her. Their relationship causes him to stress out over his infidelity, but eventually he asks Dylan for a divorce—only to be informed that she’s pregnant.

Finally the title comes into play when Michael finds out that the pre-nup he signed without reading it requires that to get Dylan’s agreement to de-couple, he has to hold a big ceremony to which he must invite everybody who came to their wedding. So he goes through the process of fulfilling that extraordinary condition. But of course it makes him reconsider his decision.

None of these segments is at all funny. A big part of the problem is that everything is crudely exaggerated, from the heavy-handed Jewish humor of the first episode—which includes an excruciatingly shrill bris ceremony dominated by Paul Sorvino, playing the rabbi as though he were performing in a 30,000-seat stadium and had to impress the people in the back row—to the strained slapstick of Michael’s trying to get into Alex’s estate and the supposedly hilarious cameo by Richard Kind as a lawyer who can’t believe that Michael didn’t read the pre-nup. Of Dylan’s parents, one would expect that it would be Kazan who goes wildly over the top, but she’s actually restrained compared to Gould.

But as troublesome as the supporting cast is, the basic difficulty is with the leads. It isn’t just that Sigler and Bennett have zero chemistry; their approaches are incompatible. She comes across as stiff and wooden (her opening college-lecture scene is awful), while he flails about like someone out of a Three Stooges short. As for Bjorlin, she poses rather than acts, more model than anything else.

Not that anybody could have done much with the thoroughly synthetic script by S.V. Krishna Reddy and his two collaborators, especially since Reddy has directed it in a slapdash fashion that goes along with a physical production on the lower end of the indie circuit.

There may be a place for a picture like “Divorce Invitation” somewhere on cable TV, preferably in an early-morning slot. But asking anybody actually to plunk down money for a ticket is sort of like trying to host a big society dinner at the Lipnicks’ diner. Given the quality, it’s just not the proper venue.