Based on the novel of the same name by Shannon Hale, writer and first-time director Jerusha Hess (co-writer of both Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre) delivers a quirky, over-the-top, odd film that is more charming than it has any right to be. Showcasing how one may take fandom too far, Keri Russell stars as Jane Hayes, a middle-aged single woman with a lifelong obsession for the works of Jane Austen and a romantic life that has never lived up to her fantasies. Spending her entire savings, Jane books a vacation at an Austen-themed destination getaway where she might finally live out those fantasies as a woman from Austen’s era.
In the spirit of a Christopher Guest film that simultaneously celebrates and pokes fun at a particular niche, Austenland‘s premise could turned around any number of overzealous fans and the properties they embrace so religiously. However, anyone who has ever known a woman obsessed with Austen’s books may take a somewhat perverse glee in Jane’s realization that her time-period-appropriate assigned role isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.
Along for the ride are Jennifer Coolidge and Georgia King as other guests of Austenland and the host of actors (JJ Feild, James Callis, Ricky Whittle) hired to give the women the romantic adventure they’ve paid for, even if Jane has to work a little harder for hers given the limitations of her “Copper Package.” Although initially attracted to one of the resort’s stable hands (Bret McKenzie), Jane also begins having feelings for the retreat’s resident aloof Mr. Darcy character (Feild) as well.
I’ll be honest, walking out of the theater my reaction to Austenland was mixed. The supporting characters are so ridiculously over-the-top they border on parody (especially Coolidge and the collection of the estate’s dashing eye candy working overtime to purposely come off as bad actors), the romantic threads of the story are far easier for the audience to follow than they are for Jane to navigate, and the message to the movie for fans of any stripe is mixed at best.
That said, Austenland is fused with an energy and passion, brought to the screen by it’s leading lady (while looking adorable in even the blandest of the period costumes) and a definite charm that made me willing to sit through its more eye-rolling tedious moments (of which there are more than a few).
Although far from completely successful I find myself giving the film a marginal pass in the attempt to offer something more involved and challenging that your basic romantic comedy. Russell carries the film which offers her character a full arc as we watch Jane bloom from the timid Pride & Prejudice-obsessed fan into a woman finally able to become the leading character of her own life and write herself her own happy ending. In the end, however, Austenland may be a fun place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there for a minute longer than the film’s relatively short 97-minute running time.