“What separates the casual Jane Austen fan from the aficionado?” Jane Seymour asks in an advertisement for her Westworld-style theme park, where devotees of the English novelist can live out their fantasies of corsets and courtship. If Austenland is any indication, filmmaker Jerusha Hess is neither fan nor aficionado; it’s not even clear that she’s cracked one of the author’s books. The writing and producing partner of husband Jared Hess, Jerusha specializes in merciless mockery, with jokes made at the expense of Idaho farm boys (Napoleon Dynamite), Mexican wrestlers (Nacho Libre), fantasy novelists (Gentlemen Broncos), and other easy-target eccentrics. In Austenland, her directorial debut, Hess adapts a 2007 beach book into another broad comedy of caricature. It’s a truly half-assed satire, one whose senseless sensibility seems less informed by the best of English literature than the worst of Saturday Night Live.
Introduced during a prologue that hastily establishes her obsession with Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy from the BBC Pride And Prejudice, Keri Russell plays an Austenphile (named Jane, naturally) who blows her life savings on a trip to the eponymous getaway retreat. Having accidentally opted for the budget package, she finds herself shuttled off to the servant quarters and assigned an unglamorous new identity. Not that the big spenders are getting much more bang for their buck: The costumed players of Austenland rarely stay in character, possibly because doing so would require the filmmakers to know how a character in an Austen novel behaves. (Pride And Prejudice is the only title that even gets name-checked.) Clumsily plotted, the film soon sets up a low-stakes love triangle, with Jane torn between a stern British actor (JJ Feild) doing his best Mr. Darcy and a playful, soulful groundskeeper (Bret McKenzie, from Flight Of The Conchords) who offers a laid-back alternative to all the pomp and circumstance. These dalliances unfold chiefly through montages, all of them set to the bland mid-tempo rock of Emmy The Great, who adds a touch of Lilith Fair to the film’s Ren Faire atmosphere.
By refusing to let its characters commit to their role-playing, Austenland squanders the promise of its premise: Had the element of performance been taken seriously, it’d be possible to see Jane as a modern Austen protagonist, attempting to detect the man behind the artifice. Instead, Hess offers a “hilariously” gay aristocrat (James Callis) and a scandalizing piano performance of “Hot In Herre.” Besides a climactic costume ball and an early hunting scene, the movie can’t even be bothered to play with the Masterpiece Theatre clichés it’s allegedly spoofing. No one here emerges unscathed—not Jennifer Coolidge, whose lusty, Austen-illiterate tourist tries out an increasingly ludicrous array of accents, and not Russell, whose effervescent charm is wasted on the most blasé of heroines. Her Jane never invests in the fantasy of Austenland—she seems bored upon arrival—so why should the audience? Indifference is woven into the fabric of the film; Hess couldn’t care less about what makes a true Austen fan tick or why a modern woman might pine for the mores and manners of yesteryear. To tweak the novelist’s famous words, this lady’s imagination is very vapid.