“Austenland” is a clumsy comedy built on the shaky ground that separates broad, low spoof from straight romance. Lumbering along, miscast and ugly to look at, it’s a faintly promising idea utterly botched by Jerusha Hess, the less talented co-writer / director wife of Jared (“Napoleon Dynamite”) Hess.
Keri Russell is the least charming and least convincing she’s ever been as plain Jane Hayes, who grew up enthralled by the novels of Jane Austen, stuck in bad relationships that have no prayer of measuring up to the epic love affairs of “Pride and Prejudice” or “Sense and Sensibility.”
But if she’s willing to spend all her savings on a “life-changing” experience, there’s this new British theme park — an immersive Jane Austen experience, full of bustles and bon mots and Empire waistlines and gala balls and romance, Regency (early 19th century) style.
Austenland is run by the prim and profit-oriented Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour). Plucky Jane Hayes is plucked from the airport and delivered to the British countryside of Austen legend — a manor house filled with sometimes shirtless stable boys and always proper gentlemen fops and the dizzy ladies who love them. Jane gets to role play, to endure insults and courtly entreaties offered by Austenland’s version of Mr. Darcy, Mr. Nobley (JJ Feild).
The bawdy “American Pie” mom Jennifer Coolidge shows up as rich ditz who figures “I’ll look hot in these wench dresses.” (She thinks the 1920s Rolls that fetched her at the airport means “They even got us a car from the 1800s!”)
They wear the corsets, eat the meals and enjoy the entertainments available to Austen-era folk — games of whist, taking turns at the pianoforte, and conversation. They must “eschew all things modern,” so no cell phones.
Jane, on the budget-based “Copper” level ticket, is wooed by the stubbly, swarthy servant Martin (Bret McKenzie) and offended by the prissy snob Mr. Nobley. Col. Andrews (James Callis) is a fop’s fop, all mustache twirls and plummy, clueless observations about whatever enters that empty head of his. Georgia King almost steals the show as the adorably hammy “actress” house guest Lady Amelia Heartwright.
King and Coolidge are funny enough that they’re almost in their own movie. Hess finds the odd laugh in the “backstage” bickering of the Austenland cast-members, out of period costume and having drinks by the hidden pool.
But “Austenland” is a sour experience, never quite “getting” the whole Austen thing and stuck with a leading lady who is supposed to be a lonely wallflower and who all the Empire waistline dresses in the world cannot disguise was quite pregnant as she filmed this.
There’s no sugarcoating the obvious — Russell should have withdrawn from the picture, and could have been excused for hiring a hit man to take out whoever did her makeup. The location, West Wycombe Park in Buckinghamshire, has been used in films such as “X-Men: First Class” and TV’s “Downton Abbey.” It’s never looked less appealing, with grimy, rushed indie-film lighting and cinematography.
Though “Austenland” finally gets on its feet at around the one-hour mark, making the tricky romantic triangle play out because “romances have blossomed on stonier ground,” as one character observes — and even as it finds laughs in a third-act “theatrical” that the guests and employees stage — that is too late to pull this chestnut’s chestnuts out of the fire. It’s never more than a theme park that isn’t worth the price of admission.
Cast: Keri Russell, Jennifer Coolidge, Jane Seymour, JJ Feild, Bret McKenzie, Georgia King
Directed by Jerusha Hess, written by Shannon Hale and Jerusha Hess, based on Hale’s novel. A Sony Classics release.
Running time: 1:35
MPAA rating: PG-13 for some suggestive content and innuendo