To 'Austenland,' Where Jane Jokes Go To Die

Aug 15, 2013
Originally published on August 15, 2013 6:45 pm

Austenland, a clunky broadside aimed at the cult of Jane Austen, is worth seeing primarily for its end credits, a mix of pop oil and water so joyfully dippy it might have produced a stifled giggle even in Herself.

Other than those few precious moments, though, the only virtues of this lumbering farce are those of the much livelier novel from which it's adapted. Author Shannon Hale's cheeky wit shone bright in her romp through Austen country and the burgeoning industry it has spawned — an industry that mostly targets Darcy-worshipping American women. Hale co-wrote the screenplay with director Jerusha Hess, but the novelist's sprightly dialogue seems not to have survived the heavier hand that wrote Napoleon Dynamite.

Hale understood that Austen's contemporary appeal has less to do with her literary cachet than with the fact that she was the prototypical romance novelist. Pride and Prejudice's Mr. Darcy returns in repeat incarnations because he was the original Unavailable Male — filthy rich, craggy of jaw, few of words. (And most of those rude or insulting.) Darcy clones abound on the covers of a thousand Harlequin Romances, ready to be trapped, softened and dragged into wedlock, at least in the dreams of women with a radar for Mr. Wrong.

The movie's Jane Hayes (played by an uneasy Keri Russell) is an overgrown girl in her 30s, her pastel bedroom stuffed with Austenalia. "I am single," she explains, "because all the good men are fictional."

Cut off from genuine romantic possibility by her hopes of snagging a bona fide Darcy, Jane is whisked off for a curative spell at "the world's only immersive Austen experience," presided over by a game but increasingly desperate-looking Jane Seymour.

Poor Jennifer Coolidge, as a clueless, plus-sized fellow guest in attendance primarily to step up the yuk quotient, is far too talented to be stuck impersonating the crass American abroad. Let the record show that I loved Coolidge in American Pie and Best in Show, but here I winced at her ghastly imitations of plummy BBC accents, and cringed as she drooled over a horse-faced colonel (James Callis) who, as everyone but she recognizes, is transparently, unobtainably and stereotypically of the gay.

The rest involves an unsurprising duel for Jane's affections between a Wickhamishly devious groundskeeper (Bret Mackenzie) and Mr. Nobley, a Darcy-esque grump played by JJ Feild. For what seems like forever, Jane drinks the Kool-Aid while learning that life for the Regency spinster, bosom on show or no, was a tedious round of sewing, taking tea and waiting for the gentlemen to return from the hunt. The repetition proves wearing, and her cross is ours to bear too.

Having mildewed so long in fantasyland, Jane will find herself unable to distinguish between the real and the imagined ideal — until, in the manner of these things, a made-to-measure studly-but-earnest gentleman gallops in to teach her the difference and deliver her to a "simple world where love is straightforward and lasting."

Not, poor us, before Austenland has wheezed from one chortling piece of bedroom-farce filler to the next; the script is replete with leering innuendo, feverish needlepoint and the cute but entirely superfluous birth of a foal.

Don't get me wrong. I was raised on vulgar British vaudeville, which has a long and noble history. And we're long overdue for a sharp skewering of the Austen franchise and the shameless way it panders to Anglophiles clinging to a media-fed vision of a Merrie Englande populated by peasants touching their forelocks to tea-sipping gentlefolk in muslin and bonnets.

The best Austen adaptations — notably Amy Heckerling's fabulous Clueless, the BBC's Pride and Prejudice and Roger Michell's muddy adaptation of Persuasion, all of them remarkably enough released in 1995 — have no truck with all that, and Hale's novel itself gooses the cult of Austen with fond affection for its victims.

Hess, to her credit, strives to retain that affection, but she has an elephant's tread and fatally little sense of how much is too much. If reading Austenland the novel was a guilty pleasure, watching Austenland the movie is like standing around at a deadly cocktail party where the hostess is laughing so hard at her own joke that she can't finish telling it.

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