Austenland (opening today) is based on the 2007 novel of the same name, by author Shannon Hale. It is a story that's reverent to the legendary author, Jane Austen, whose stories - books like Sense & Sensibility, Pride & Prejudice and Emma - are considered classic works of literature. These books are universally-loved and undoubtedly appeal to women of all ages, so it is no surprise that many of her novels have been re-created as TV shows and movies for over 60 years. Many of these stories feature relatable, strong female protagonists that find romance and heart-break in 19th century Britain.
So when the book, Austenland, was released, it spoke directly to the thousands (millions?) of "Janeites" who also obsess with Jane Austen and her romantic vision of love. The story features a 30-something woman, Jane Hayes, who goes on a Jane Austen-themed excursion...a sort of theme-park where participants get to dress in the old garb of the time and possibly experience some of the situational love-triangles they have come to know and love from Austen's work.
Well, it is possible that one million Jane Austen fans can be wrong. Because Austenland - at least this film adaptation - would have the real Jane Austen rolling in her grave. Even the most smitten Janeite should be able to differentiate between real romance and the hackneyed crap presented in Austenland...but I have a feeling that the built-in audience for this - meaning anyone with ovaries - may overlook this egregiousness with a glossed-over, love-struck, eternally optimistic twinkle in their eye. I guess it's easy to get swept up in a tale where an awkward girl searches for her real-life Mr. Darcy, despite the fact that the film feels more like someone trying to re-create a classic painting with crayons.
So as the film goes, Keri Russell plays Jane Hayes, an obsessed Jane Austen fan who sets out to find true love at Austenland. The caretaker of the beautiful manor, Mrs. Wattlesbrook, has it out for young Jane from the get-go...is it because she didn't purchase the "platinum" experience? We're not really sure. We just know that this lady wants to make things rough on Jane (is that any way to treat a paying customer)?
Upon arriving, she meets a clueless, wealthy woman, Miss Elizabeth Charming (Stiffler's mom, Jennifer Coolidge), who apparently is meant to bring comic relief...but the usually quirky Coolidge is nearly unwatchable given a horribly cliched character and an assortment of cornball lines to work with. Also at Austenland are a series of actors portraying well-known Austen character-types: The beautiful distraction, Lady Amelia Heartwright (Georgia King), the sexy soldier, Captain George East (Ricky Whittle), the goofy host, Colonel Andrews (James Callis) and of course, the Mr. Darcy-esque, Mr. Henry Nobley (JJ Field).
But unexpectedly (yawn), Jane ends up meeting and falling for a maintenance person on the grounds of Austenland, Martin (Bret McKenzie, one half of The Flight of the Conchords duo). A love triangle is created between Martin, and Mr. Nobley, who may be falling for Jane for real, even though he is paid to just act like it.
Written by Jerusha Hess - the scribe who wrote Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre - Austenland aims to be quirky-cute and instead lands as a solid dud. This is one of the most bizarre films in recent memory. Nothing works. There is bad acting matched with even worse dialogue, all stilted on familiar Jane Austen conventions that come across more as a rip-off than an homage.
Yes, there are twists, but only ones that you see coming miles away. Absolutely nothing in this film is believable, even taking into consideration that the entire story is set in a sort of fictional fantasy environment. Keri Russell is neither endearing nor funny and I didn't buy for a single minute the plot absurdities.
Austenland, the themed excursion, is what it is: A fictional place where people copy the best aspects of a classic author's work for profit. Everything in Austenland, the film, is phony too, as it aims to copy the best aspects of Jane Austen's work, in an attempt to cash in on her ongoing popularity.
The film would have benefited greatly had it instead tried to invoke the feel of an Austen novel, instead of just dressing up like one.
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance
Run Time: 1 hour, 37 minutes, Rated PG-13
Starring: Keri Russell, JJ Field, Jennifer Coolidge, Bret McKenzie, Georgia King, James Callis, Jane Seymour, Ricky Whittle
Based on the novel of the same name by Shannon Hale
Co-written by Shannon Hale & Jerusha Hess (Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre, Gentlemen Broncos)
Directed by Jerusha Hess (Feature-film directorial debut)
Opens locally on Friday, Sept 13, 2013 (check for show times).
Be sure to watch Tom Santilli on TV! Check your local listings for “Movie Show Plus” for Tom’s weekly movie review segment, airing at 3 p.m. EST on MYTV20 in Detroit.
How to read Tom Santilli's "Star Ratings:"
- 5 Stars: Exceptional, must-see movie
- 4 Stars: Very good movie, not without flaws
- 3 Stars: The movie was just OK, leaves a lot to be desired
- 2 Stars: Pretty bad, a let-down, disappointing, but with some redeeming qualities
- 1 Star: Awful, sloppy, a total waste of time