The devotion of Jane Austen’s fanbase can be measured in how many movies have been inspired by her work. I don’t mean just straightforward adaptations of her novels but also fractured takes on those novels (Clueless), fanciful biographies of the author herself (Becoming Jane), movies about her fans (The Jane Austen Book Club), and movies that heavily reference her works (the Bridget Jones films). Expanding to AMC Grapevine Mills this week, Austenland is the latest of these, and though I’ve seen worse, this comedy is so focused on obvious jokes that it misses one opportunity after another to be better.
Loosely adapted from a novel by Shannon Hale, the story begins with Jane Hayes (Keri Russell), an American woman who’s so obsessed with Jane Austen novels that she can never find a man who measures up to her favorite author’s gallant heroes. So she travels to Austenland, a manor in the English countryside where paying customers can dress up in Regency costumes and interact with paid actors schooled in the social customs and mores of early 19th-century England.
This setup is rife with opportunities to satirize the Jane Austen industrial complex, a business that dates back to a few decades after the author’s death. Surely a place like Austenland would have a gift shop hawking racks of DVDs, complete sets of Austen novels, tea services, and t-shirts adorned with pictures of a dripping wet Colin Firth. We don’t see that in the movie, because director/co-writer Jerusha Hess is more interested in squeezing laughs out of slapstick, wobbly accents, and period costumes.
Nor is she much interested in exploring the Austen cult’s appeal. A certain type of person finds modern society so uncongenial that they prefer a place of gentleman callers, neighborhood balls, and other highly codified social rituals. Instead of exploring that, Hess just blows up Jane and all the other characters into cartoons that bear little relationship with reality, and so the heroine comes off like an airhead.
Then again, the casting doesn’t do her any favors. Russell is smart and likable, and after seeing her as a cold-blooded killer on TV’s The Americans, it’s good to see her get back in touch with her lighter side. Still, she’s way too levelheaded to be playing an arrested-development case whose bedroom is filled with porcelain dolls and wooden block letters that spell out “Darcy Rocks.” Jennifer Coolidge pops up as another American tourist who tries to get into the Englishness of the setting and has no clue how to do it. The veteran of Christopher Guest movies is a canny ad-libber, but a little bit of her goes a long way, and there’s way too much of her here.
Ultimately, this movie wants to have its trifle and eat it, too, setting up the romantically hapless Jane in a triangle with a groom (Bret McKenzie) and Austenland’s resident Mr. Darcy (JJ Feild, and yes, that’s how his name is spelled). For all the gibes at people trying to re-create Regency England in the 21st century, Jane finds true love by buying into her romantic fantasy. That’s patently ridiculous, and Jane Austen herself, ruthless observer of human foibles that she was, would have torn both Jane and this movie to pieces. Since she’s not here to do it, that job falls to me.
Starring Keri Russell. Directed by Jerusha Hess. Written by Jerusha Hess and Shannon Hale, based on Hale’s novel. Rated PG-13.