It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Jane Austen fanatic in possession of a healthy fantasy life must be in want of a Darcy, and that Darcys are hard to come by these days, outside of a 34th viewing of Colin Firth in the 1995 BBC “Pride and Prejudice” miniseries.
So there’s the germ of a brilliant satirical idea to “Austenland,” a film adaptation of the 2007 Shannon Hale novel about a lovelorn “Janeite” who flees to an Austen theme park to drown herself in Regency solace. Sadly, that idea is hunted down and beaten insensate by Jerusha Hess, making a cartoonish and unfunny directorial debut after co-writing “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Nacho Libre,” two films that are to Jane Austen as Taco Bell is to spatchcocked quail. It’s all in the execution, which is more or less what Hess has done to the story.
Keri Russell plays Jane, a naïf in her early 30s whose bedroom is done up in Austen-ite froufrou and whose tragic romantic non-life compels her to sign up for the British vacation getaway of the title. Overseen by the strict Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour), Austenland is a “fully immersive” experience, with actors playing the male roles and female customers squeezing themselves into corsets and the speech patterns of early-19th-century English gentry.
Great idea, as mentioned, and who knows what a Christopher Guest might have done with it. Yet “Austenland” displays a near-fatal disconnect between its subject (wit) and its style (witless). Hess and co-writer Hale can’t write Austen-esque dialogue even to make fun of it; the actors’ lines peter out before making it to the finish line. The film’s humor is unstructured slapstick, much of it centering around Jennifer Coolidge as a grossly tacky fellow tourist who has never read Austen but just wants to get it on with a British guy in period dress. Coolidge — who has done her time in Guest’s mockumentaries as well as playing Stifler’s Mom in the “American Pie” films — makes her character so cringe-inducing that you end up laughing by default.
Hess’s inexperience shows in the film’s conflicting tones and general shapelessness. “Austenland” tries to have its scone and eat it, plonking the mousy heroine down between Martin (Bret McKenzie), the chest-heaving stablehand, and Mr. Henry Nobley (JJ Feild), the theme park’s resident Darcy figure. Both warm to Jane — the latter in appreciably Austen-like increments — but are they acting? How much disbelief can a woman suspend before she emotionally hangs herself? If only the answers were as interesting as the questions.
A few times we glimpse the staff quarters, where the men playing Martin, Nobley, and the whinnying idiot Colonel Andrews (James Callis) sit around the pool getting drunk and complaining about their jobs. For a brief moment, we sense the potential for behind-the-scenes cleverness, maybe some comic explorations of human behavior then and now and why some people think “then” has to be better. And then the moment passes.
Honestly, it’s a puzzlement as to whom this movie was made for. Devoted readers of Austen’s work — even people who prefer the movies and miniseries — will shrink from the boorishness of “Austenland,” whereas those who like their humor broad and silly probably don’t care much about the belle of Hampshire. Hess has made a classic rookie director mistake: Any spoof has to be at least as smart as the thing it’s spoofing, and this one’s twice as dumb.