Editor’s note: Kate’s review originally ran during this year’s Sundance Film Festival, but we’re re-running it as the film opens in limited theatrical release this weekend.
Obsession with fictional literary heroes is nothing new, but Austenland’s Jane Hayes (Keri Russell) has taken her love for Jane Austen’s (again, fictional) Mr. Darcy and the Regency-era world he (as written in a fictional novel) inhabited in Austen’s (still fictional, Jane) “Pride & Prejudice” to new lows. While the source material for Jerusha Hess’s film, Shannon Hale’s very popular novel of the same name, found its heroine focusing her attentions on a still more fake Darcy – the one played by Colin Firth in the also very popular but not entirely true to Austen’s work BBC miniseries version of “Pride & Prejudice” – Hess wisely expands Jane’s obsession to apply more thoroughly to the rest of Austen’s work and her Regency Era. It is perhaps one of the few wise choices made in service to the adaptation, as Hess’s film, though frequently funny, is almost disastrously goofy and doofy, headed up by a poorly-drawn leading lady who, had she not been played by someone as lovely as Russell, would be the target of scorn by everyone she meets.
We quickly learn that Russell’s Jane has been obsessed with Mr. Darcy for most of her life, with Hess kicking off the film with an amusing sequence of flashbacks that show Jane progressing through her teen years and on into adulthood with a moony-eyed stare (always looking for her own Darcy) and a ratty “I (heart) DARCY” tote bag. Her best friend is aware of her obsession, her workmates must be (her cubicle is decked out with pictures of Regency fashions), and it’s made it nearly impossible for her to date anyone resembling a quality mate. Her apartment is filled to bursting with all sorts of Austen and Regency knickknacks, including a life-size cardboard cut-out of Firth as Darcy and a heart-breakingly weird sign over her bed that reads “DARCY WAS HERE” (no, Jane, no he was not). Jane is pathetic and sad and bizarre, and what’s even worse is that she’s scarcely able to see it for herself – she’s not just tragic, she is tragically self-unaware.
So, if she wants to ship herself off on some wacky British vacation to a place called “Austenland,” where she gets to parade herself around in Regency fashions and mingle like a character in an Austen novel and get assigned an actor who pretends he is into her in a very Darcy-esque manner, sure, let’s do it! And maybe she’ll kick this obsession once and for all! Jane uses her life savings (are we supposed to feel bad about this?) to toddle off to bitchy Mrs. Wattlesbrook’s (Jane Seymour) country manor, where she is promptly treated like trash because she could only afford the Copper Package, whereas the two other guests, a delightfully demented Georgia King as “Lady Amelia Heartwright” and an over-the-top even by her own standards Jennifer Coolidge as “Miss Elizabeth Charming,” could afford the Platinum Elite Package.
That sort of derision is probably par for the course for loser Jane, and it certainly helps her feel like a misunderstood Austen heroine. Austenland itself is amusingly outfitted, but even being amongst appropriate furnishings and fashions doesn’t quite work for Jane, who never fully engages with her surroundings – weird, considering that the whole film is built on the assumption that this trip is Jane’s entire reason for being. Instead, Jane sneaks off to the stables to hang out with “servant” Martin (Bret McKenzie, working surprisingly well as a romantic foil), dodges J.J. Feild’s thunderously boring Darcy stand-in, and works around Wattlesbrook’s archaic rules. It’s often very funny, but it’s funny in a slapped-together, “oh, yes, they went there” manner, funny because it pushes so hard to be wacky and silly, and sometimes you just want to reward those sort of attempts. Also, fart jokes.
Yet, after all its attempts at goof and mirth and a flimsy good time, Austenland makes a late play for pathos and drama that’s both thoroughly unearned and totally unwelcome. While any audience who becomes invested in Jane and her self-actualization surely desires to see our heroine grow and change and stand up for herself, it’s hard to feel that’s accomplished by out-of-character proclamations and a number of “twists” that come from a mile away. Void of the depth of emotion, character-building, and true comedy of manners that mark any Austen novel, Austenland is a slight companion piece for only the most hardcore fans of far superior work.
The Upside: Jennifer Coolidge seems to be having a great time; fun use of a modern soundtrack; frequent laugh-out-loud moments.
The Downside: Underdeveloped characters; poorly-executed and fairly obvious “twists”; a fairly wasted premise.
On the Side: The film is the directorial debut of Hess, who previously penned Napoleon Dynamite with her husband, Jared Hess.