Directed by Jerusha Hess. Starring Keri Russell, JJ Feild, Bret McKenzie, Jennifer Coolidge, Jane Seymour, Georgia King, James Callis, Ricky Whittle. (2013, PG-13, 97 min.)
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Sept. 6, 2013
For such a deft wit, Jane Austen sure has inspired some nitwitted entertainments. Actually, the Austen influence here is negligible, save some thin ribbons of plot snipped from her catalog, including Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park. Sincere Austen devotees – or Janeites, if you want to get bubblegum about it – won't find much in common with this modern-day Jane (Russell), who decks out her apartment in Regency-style tchotchkes and a life-sized cardboard cutout of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy.
The filmmakers gallop through this getting-to-know-Jane stage to get her to the title's Austenland, an immersive resort in England, for which Jane empties out her savings in order to make-believe like she's a Jane Austen character. Professional dim-bulb Jennifer Coolidge plays another one of the guests, and already you've halved the prospective audience. (For those of us not already on board with her half-lidded, dumb-as-a-fence-post persona in superior entertainments like the Christopher Guest films, Coolidge's presence here is like persistent heartburn.) There are also two love interests – call them Austenland's premier attractions: JJ Feild plays an actor playing a Darcy type, while Bret McKenzie (of Flight of the Conchords) is more like stage crew, charged with tending to stable animals, grounds maintenance, and thirtysomething singletons who suffer existential crises when fantasy collides with reality and comes up in the red. There's an amusing sidebar set at the actors' bunks, where they strip themselves of their Regency garb and sun by the pool, talking trash about the dumb Americans whose fantasies they service, but the picky viewer might grumble it's not funny enough to justify the cheat: Otherwise the film is told entirely from Jane's perspective. Oh, and there's an attempted sexual assault that exists to goose the plot, then is unceremoniously dropped.
Most egregiously, first-time feature director Jerusha Hess (who previously co-wrote Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre, and Gentlemen Broncos) and her co-writer, Shannon Hale (on whose novel the film is based), appear disinterested in genuinely exploring Jane's ardor for Austen's books – how she came to love them, what they mean to her, and why she has so long forgone human interaction for these fictional comforts. Here, Austen is just a quirk, something to hang a rom-com on: Jane could just as easily be swoony for Star Wars, or Trollope, or torture porn. Any of those avenues might have yielded greater rewards than Austenland's amble from plot point to plot point until our heroine arrives, triumphant, at a last-reel kiss.