Clumsy comedy about love-starved ladies seeking a real-life Mr. Darcy squanders its promising premise with lazy writing and haphazard direction
As the writer of 2009's "Gentlemen Broncos" and now the writer-director of "Austenland," Jerusha Hess accomplishes the seemingly impossible — she makes the brilliant Jennifer Coolidge completely unfunny.
Hess's Midas-in-reverse touch permeates all of "Austenland," taking an amusing premise (from the novel by Shannon Hale, who's credited as co-writer) and pounding the comedy out of it with a mallet. What could have been a sharp satire about women's unrealistic romantic expectations and the people who exploit them instead becomes a draggy, dreary mess with an empire waistline.
Jane (Keri Russell) has spent her life obsessed with the novels of Jane Austen, hoping for a real-life equivalent of Mr. Darcy (specifically as portrayed by Colin Firth on the BBC miniseries of "Pride and Prejudice") to sweep her off her feet. After another in a series of romantic disappointments, Jane blows her savings on a one-week trip to Austenland, a British resort where women can live in the Regency style and get romanced by a man who could have stepped out of one of the author's books.
Since Jane opted for the less-expensive Copper Package, she gets the poor-relation treatment, cosseted in frumpy brown dresses and relegated to the servants' quarters while her fellow traveler, the seemingly illiterate Elizabeth (Coolidge), gets the full array of pampering.
Elizabeth has her head turned by the rakish Colonel Andrews (James Callis) while Jane receives the attention of both the Darcy-ish Henry Nobley (JJ Feild) and stable boy Martin (Bret McKenzie, "Flight of the Conchords"). We're led to believe that Martin is merely an employee of the place while Henry is an "actor" whose job is it to seduce the female guests.
"Austenland" never examines its own pimpy undertones — its executive producer is Stephenie Meyer, whose "Twilight" novels have insulted the sexual impulses of a generation of women — but we're left to wonder if either man really loves Jane or if he's merely fulfilling his fantasy-stud role.
Not that it really matters either way — "Austenland" is so sluggish and plodding that I started imaging a cross-over with another fantasy-resort movie, wherein the Yul Brynner gunslinger robot from "Westworld" would show up and lay waste to all of these dullards.
Russell tries her best with the material, but she's too attractive and charismatic to be convincing as a sheltered mouse; also not helping matters is the fact that Jane is supposed to be immersed in Austen, having memorized large portions of "Pride and Prejudice" in her teens, and yet she throws around terms like "Hi" and "OK" when she finally gets to live her fantasy of being an Austen character.
While Feild successfully comes across as a thinking-woman's sex symbol, he's mired in a dopey and inconsistent movie that wastes his screen presence. He and Russell and Coolidge could shine in a better film, but "Austenland" is a waste of time and talent. If they ever make movies out of the satirical novels "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" or "Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters," those would probably be truer to Austen than this farrago of rom-com and nit-wit lit.
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