The contemporary cult that’s developed around English novelist Jane Austen is plundered for cheap laughs in “Austenland.” Unlikely that this phony and often phoned-in romantic comedy will enjoy any cult status of its own.
By JON NICCUM
Special to The Star
Director Jerusha Hess, an Olathe native, could have turned the breezy novel by Shannon Hale (they share screenwriting credit) into an interesting take on misguided obsession but instead opts for the cutesy route. Her film never reveals more than a Wikipedian glance about Austen or her works.
“I am single because apparently the only good men are fictional,” explains Jane Hayes (Keri Russell).
The mousy office worker consoles herself by decorating her New York apartment in faux Regency-era knickknacks, complete with a life-sized cutout of Mr. Darcy from the “Pride and Prejudice” miniseries.
She eventually decides to take the ultimate Austen plunge, selling her Tercel to pay for a week at a garish theme park in England that brings to life the civility, grandeur and romance of the novels. There she meets several wealthier, wackier guests (Jennifer Coolidge and Georgia King), who are jointly “courted” by dashing surrogates Mr. Henry Nobley (JJ Feild) and Col. Andrews (James Callis).
Can she find real romance with any of these actors or will it be lowly stable boy Martin (Bret McKenzie of “Flight of the Conchords”) who wins her heart?
As in her previous screenwriting efforts, the overpraised “Napoleon Dynamite” and underwhelming “Nacho Libre” (both directed by husband Jared), Hess favors the ugly facets of humanity. Not thematically, but physically. And it’s the tackiest-looking movie to ever be associated with Austen.
Similarly, the actors in “Austenland” go for broad — and nobody does it broader than Coolidge, delivering the same Botoxed bimbo she did in the “Legally Blonde” franchise. Coolidge gets to deliver the film’s best, and most telling, line: “I think being creative is a waste of time and money.”
Adding to the atonal environment is a truly cheeseball soundtrack (Billy Ocean? Roxette?). Worse: A post credits sequence in which the period-garbed actors lip sync to Nelly’s “Hot in Herre.”
Thankfully, a few key performances manage to keep the proceedings respectable. Although given an ostensibly sad-sack character, Russell is spunky and charming enough to generate ample connection. Even better is Feild, who inhabits the “Colin Firth role” despite looking more like Jude Law and sounding closer to Alan Rickman. Their charisma is crucial, especially as the final act hinges on a capricious love triangle.
Funny that the least artificial thing about this hokey comedic enterprise is the tangible relationship that emerges between Jane and a worthy suitor.
Even when few things in “Austenland” make sense, at least there’s some sensibility.
(At the Glenwood at Red Bridge, Palace, Rio, Town Center.)