The idea of a theme park or retreat based on the work of a well-regarded novelist is silly at best, offensive at worst. We should not celebrate our writers with an expensive novelty of a vacation; we should reread our favorite books in the (likely) event we discover something new. That being said, I think a Hemingway theme park would be terrific because it’d be just like a safari, except with more booze and courage. I am assuredly not the intended audience for Austenland, as I haven’t read all her books, nor do I have any obsession with Mr. Darcy. When the comedy isn’t too broad, this visit to an Austen-themed retreat works because co-writer/director Jerusha Hess recognizes the innate silliness of her premise.
Keri Russell stars as Jane, a single thirty-something whose obsession with Austen ruins her relationships. In an early montage, her latest boyfriend punches a life-size cut-out of Colin Firth, and Jane quickly fixes it with a kiss his cheek. Disappointed with New York City men, Jane decides her answer is Austenland: run by the taciturn Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour), the vacation is an opportunity for Austen fans to live like they’re in one of her books. There are costumes, elegant meals, croquet matches, and it all culminates with an evening ball.
Jane flies to England, and the trip is already a mild disappointment. She’s stuck in the maids’ quarters – her vacation package is the least extravagant – and fellow vacationer Miss Elizabeth Charming (Jennifer Coolidge) is mostly unfamiliar with the author. Jane still decides to make the most of it, and the men pique her interest: there’s Henry Nobley (JJ Field), whose mild disgust makes him an early Darcy candidate, and Martin (Bret McKenzie) the stable-boy is a charmer in his own right. Torn between them, Jane finds herself in Austen-like triangle, except she’s unsure how much of it is manufactured.
The irony of Austenland – the vacation spot, not the movie – is that Austen was never writing about the past. She was writing about the present, her present, and she observed it with wit and biting satire. The costumes and love triangles are ancillary, and the good news about Austenland is how it actually understands the author’s appeal. The trappings of the vacation are the subjects of Hess’ gentle ridicule, and so are the dim-witted characters. Hess does not share Austen’s incisiveness, and the jokes are so broad they’re embarrassing. In particular, Coolidge is an unfortunate creature who tries to push her truly idiotic toward the sublime, and they never quite stick. The biggest laughs are when Hess and her screenwriters let the audience in on her joke. There’s a scene with Martin, Jane, and a horse that’s so silly it’s a little bold.
As Jane, Russell is an avatar for the audience. She literally has no personality aside from her obsession – she develops a sense of pride later – and Russell sells the character with pluck and well-honed comic timing. The crowd at the screening I attended was mostly women, and they seemed to have a great time. They giggled and shrieked whenever a male character took his shirt off; they laughed with sympathy when Jane got caught in the rain. Beneath the veneer of vulgar idiocy, there’s a satire about the fallacy of nostalgia that’s just itching to get out. Miss Charming’s cringe-inducing one-liners, unfortunately, get in the way. Girlfriends should not bring their significant others to Austenland. Instead, they should leave them at home so they can rewatch Midnight in Paris, which arrives at the same conclusion but with better, smarter jokes.