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.”