Austenland is sort of the latest adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I say “sort of” because it’s actually based on Shannon Hale’s novel Austenland, which was inspired by the 1995 film version of Pride and Prejudice, which was itself adapted from Austen’s actual novel. After being dragged through a book, a movie, another book, and another movie, Austen’s story has lost a bit of its zip. All that’s left in Austenland (not the book, the movie… no, the second movie…) are a bunch of familiar plot devices and personalities wrapped in a poofy pink ball gown.
Instead of Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine of Pride and Prejudice, we have Jane Hayes (Keri Russell). Jane is not the witty, plucky Elizabeth of the original story, but she does want a Mr. Darcy. Specifically, Jane wants the Mr. Darcy from the 1995 miniseries. Her obsession compels her to cover her apartment with Pride and Prejudice paraphernalia, including a cardboard cutout of Colin Firth in breeches standing guard over her living room and wooden letters spelling “DARCY WAS HERE” hanging over her bed.
Desperate to live out her fantasy, Jane travels to England to an Austen theme park – think Colonial Williamsburg, but with more heaving bosoms – where she discovers that reality can be just as much fun as fiction.
Austenland is the directorial debut of Jerusha Hess (who also adapted the screenplay from Shannon Hale’s novel), and on paper, it seems like a natural choice. Hess is half of the husband-wife team behind Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre. Most of Hess’ previous projects have been about tiny insulated communities populated by a motley crew of lovable weirdos, and Austenland fits that bill perfectly.
However, Hess’ Austenland is not a gentle, quirky comedy, but an over-the-top burlesque – or at least, that’s what Hess wants it to be. But she doesn’t deal with the change in style gracefully. The characters of Austenland are broad stereotypes, but they’re a little too inconsistent to make a lasting impression; motivations, behaviors, and even accents change at the drop of a hat. Awkward slapstick and outrageous non-sequiturs in dialogue seem to be shoehorned into scenes that don’t have the pacing to accommodate them.
Hess’ clumsy execution is made even worse by the editing. She may have been able to squeeze more humor out of the weak source material by allowing the jokes to land. Instead, we’re hurried from scene to scene, almost apologetically. “Sorry you had to see that, moving on now,” the filmmaker seems to say. Hess wants the big laughs, but is a little too self-conscious to go whole hog.
Fortunately, her cast has no such reservations. Though Hess shies away from broad comedy, the actors are completely unafraid to embrace it. Keri Russell makes the odd, lonely Jane a likable straight woman in the middle of a circus of crazy characters. She holds her own among several overpowering screen presences, including Jane’s brassy fellow vacationer “Miss Charming,” (Jennifer Coolidge), who delivers some of the best lines in the movie. James Callis is fabulous as foppish closet-case Colonel Andrews, J.J. Field is alternately stormily brooding and sweetly awkward as the Darcy-esque Mr. Nobley, and Ricky Whittle does a fantastic turn as 18th century Old Spice Guy Captain East.
But the best surprise is definitely Scottish actress Georgia King as mean girl Lady Amelia Heartwright. Though King is probably best known to American audiences as the star of NBC’s sadly short-lived sitcom The New Normal, she also has a long list of BBC costume dramas on her resume. She gleefully parodies the conventions of traditional Austen adaptations, pirouetting from room to room in the manner of a classic doe-eyed ingénue.
The wackiness culminates in a post-credits music video, in which the entire cast lip-syncs Nelly’s “Hot in Here.” It’s not particularly clever or surprising, but everyone seems to be having a great time. And their enthusiasm is infectious; it’s hard not to crack a smile when Keri Russell, in full Regency dress, raps while several comely stable boys act as her backup dancers.
Austenland is not a great movie by any standard. But you won’t see good actors having this much fun with bad material in any other movie this year.
Verdict: Movie Meh
This article was published in its original form in The Massachusetts Daily Collegian on September 24, 2013.