Movie Review ~ Austenland


The Facts:

Synopsis: Obsessed with the BBC production of “Pride and Prejudice”, a woman travels to a Jane Austen theme park in search for her perfect gentleman.

Stars: Keri Russell, J.J. Feild, Bret McKenzie, James Callis, Jennifer Coolidge, Jane Seymour, Rupert Vansittart, Georgia King

Director: Jerusha Hess

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 97 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: Oh boy…rough waters ahead my dear readers.  Look, I’m no Jane Austen purist so I’m totally in favor for all these new slants on the world that Austen has created.  You want some Zombies with your Pride and Prejudice?  Great!  How about putting a few Sea Monsters in Sense and Sensibility?  Go for it!  Have an idea to take Emma and morph it into a high school comedy with valley girls Beverly Hills?  Go write Clueless!  Just for the love of Mr. Darcy, make it interesting…and good.

Sadly, the makers of Austenland didn’t heed my advice and instead have brought Shannon Hale’s novel (which I haven’t read) to gloomy life in a film that with this cast and this story would have been better suited to play on the Lifetime channel.  Everything about the film is mediocre, from the milquetoast lead performance of Keri Russell to the bland direction from Jerusha Hess (making her directing debut after co-writing Napoleon Dynamite and the epically awful Nacho Libre).

The exceedingly thin set-up has our Austen-obsessed leading lady (named Jane, natch) who blows her entire life-savings on an immersive experience at Austenland, a retreat in England that caters to every custom of the time period in which Austen’s characters lived.  It’s a very novel (pun!) concept, actually, that’s sadly not taken as seriously as is necessary if the writers had really wanted to go the distance.  I would have preferred the film be truly immersive and have these modern characters go without any modern trappings and show what comedy comes from the complete absence of the 21st century influences.  Instead we have a film with its high button shoes planted ungainly in both time periods.

For a film that’s idolizing one of the most popular female writers in history, the women are probably the least interesting people on screen.  In addition to Russell’s non-mesmerizing turn we have Jennifer Coolidge recycling her dim-bulb shtick that gets old before the actress has time to squeeze herself into a corset. Every facial expression, every line reading is given a hypodermic shot of Looney Tunes (the animated kind, not the state of mind) and it rubs you the wrong way like parmesan cheese on a rusty cheese grater.  One notch down from Coolidge is Georgia King (from the dreadful and thankfully cancelled TV comedy The New Normal) who plays her character as if Marilyn Monroe had waltzed into Mansfield Park.  Literally hopping from one scene to the next, King’s comedy is more puzzling than hilarious.  Jane Seymour’s (Live and Let Die) role is so uninteresting that the movie itself forgets about her two thirds of the way through.

If the movie has any success, it’s thanks to the men.  As the man standing in for the Mr. Darcy type, JJ Feild gets nearly everything right…from his initial exasperation at another troupe of ladies arriving in the fantastically designed countryside estate to his gradual realization that he’s kinda falling for Jane (though she’s so wishy-washy you have to wonder why).  Flitting through his dandy role, James Callis is tasked with fending off Coolidge’s cougar-like advances and seems to have a great time with the cat and mouse game.  Flight of the Conchords star Bret McKenzie (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey) helps loosen Russell up and their scenes have a nice pop to them.  Who will wind up with whom turned out to be different than I thought, the only real surprise the movie has to offer.

I have to laugh at some of the critics that have called out the fact that there aren’t a lot of guests at Austenland.  With servants outnumbering the paying customers about 70 to 1, I found that element of the movie totally believable.  Promising an experience tailored to each visitor in which they are the only focus, why wouldn’t the powers that be want to keep the guest list small to achieve the kind of escapade that they are going for?  It’s a non-issue when there are so many other things wrong with the movie.

Perhaps this one would be good for people to discover at home on cable…which is where the movie should have premiered.  Its ambitions are so small and its potential so low that it’s hard to fathom why the movie was released in theaters at all by Sony Pictures Classics.  It’s a bargain basement affair…even with the handsome production design and strong supporting turns by a stable of game male actors.  If only the women weren’t so terribly tedious…Jane Austen wouldn’t approve.

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