“Austenland” — 2 1/2 stars
There’s a fairly brilliant idea at the heart of “Austenland,” given that the ongoing enormous popularity of all things Jane Austen make it easy to believe such a thing as an Austen-themed, romance-guaranteed fantasy vacation really could exist.
It’s just a shame that instead of a smart, literate send-up of Austen’s novels and the yearnings of a modern-day woman who prefers them to the real world, we have to settle for a modest, mildly amusing, romantic-comedy rehash.
The writing/directing debut of Jerusha Hess (who co-wrote “Napoleon Dynamite,” among others, with her husband, director Jared Hess), based on a 2007 novel by co-screenwriter Shannon Hale, “Austenland” is the story of a young American woman who decides to make her romantic fantasies come true — for a price. Hopelessly enamored with Austen’s more elegant, refined literary world and convinced she will never find a modern man to compare with Mr. Darcy (a life-size standee of Colin Firth from “Pride and Prejudice” dominates her apartment), Jane (Keri Russell) spends her life savings on a trip to Austenland.
Jane’s a bit of a nut, in other words, but not so far gone that she doesn’t realize she needs to reevaluate her life. Something she plans to do after getting the Austen thing out of her system with one spectacular, fantasy-fulfilling splurge. Unfortunately, after arriving at the giant mansion in the English countryside, she learns she has only been able to afford the bargain package, meaning she’s been assigned the role of Miss Jane Erstwhile, “an orphan of no fortune,” with a plain frock and a room in the servant’s wing.
Having Jane’s fantasy deflated in such a dismaying fashion might have set up all sorts of Austen-satirical situations. However, Hess is content to have Jane pluck up her resolve, put on a brave face and enter into a competition with the other ladies on the vacation for the attentions of the actors who have been hired to play their 18th-century suitors. And soon Jane’s involved in a predictable romantic triangle with the initially “insufferable” Mr. Nobly (J.J. Feild as the resident Mr. Darcy stand-in) and a very-much-against-the-rules liaison with Austenland groundskeeper Martin (Brett McKenzie of HBO’s “Flight of the Conchords”).
Pleasant comic touches are interspersed throughout, mostly courtesy of Jennifer Coolidge doing her typical oversexed, clueless thing as Miss Charming, a rich, likeably vulgar guest who’s never heard of Jane Austen but thinks she’ll “look great in those wench gowns.” Georgia King and James Callis are also entertaining as the conniving guest Lady Amelia Heartwright and the dimwitted suitor Col. Andrews — and Russell provides her usual charm (check out her 2007 “Waitress” if you’ve missed it) as Austen-aholic Jane.
The humor is too scattershot for “Austenland” to work as a straight comedy, though, and the romantic element is also compromised, in the end, by over-complicated developments when Jane finds it difficult to distinguish whether her feelings for Nobly and Martin are based on reality or fantasy.
Either way though, she’s better off than she was with a life-size cardboard cutout of Colin Firth.