It’s rare when a movie critiques itself but when Best in Show alumni Jennifer Coolidge states that she thinks that “being creative is a waste of time and money,” she might just have well have broken through the cinematic fourth wall, stepped out of character as another rich, dimwitted but friendly American and addressed the audience to describe exactly what is wrong with Austenland overall.
A complete missed opportunity to do for Jane Austen what Love Actually did for romantic comedies, writer/director Jerusha Hess’s abysmal adaptation of the novel by Shannon Hale (which was likewise co-written for the screen by Hale) never seems to figure out precisely what tone they’re aiming for, let alone the point they’re trying to make.
Despite a cleverly conceived idea that centers around a tourist destination for Jane Austen aficionados (think: Comic Con - Elizabeth Bennet style), where bibliophiles can spend an immersive week in the English countryside of Austen’s novels, Austenland is never able to match that creativity in its tale of our uninspired heroine Jane Hayes (played by the otherwise affable Keri Russell).
So dedicated to the world of Austen that she’s created a room wholly devoted to it (complete with decidedly unliterary wall art that boldly states that Mr. Darcy Rocks), when we meet Jane she’s frustrated by the way that love on paper never seems to live up to the real thing.
At a dead-end in all aspects of her life, while we understand why Hayes would enjoy this sort of Anglophile adult summer camp, we have absolutely no clue why she would assume that a vacation to Jane Land would be the answer to all of her problems.
Needless to say, while she’s purported to be an intelligent bookworm, we can’t imagine a grown woman with an above average IQ voluntarily trading in her life savings for a week of faux-romance with one of the hired actors. (It’s not exactly The Bachelor: The Austen Edition.)
And therein lies one of the biggest dilemmas of the movie as Hess and Hale never can figure out whether they’d like us to relate to and laugh with Jane or be mystified by and laugh at our misguided lead.
Missing the same sort of opportunities embraced by contemporary Austen adaptations from You’ve Got Mail to Bridget Jones’s Diary to Clueless to walk that fine line in tone and do more than just touch on a few plot points here and there, after Jane arrives in Austenland she grows disillusioned with the resort almost instantly.
Spending her time doing seemingly out-of-character things from playing “Hot in Here” on the piano to ignoring the types of seminars and activities that she seemed perfect for in the film’s introduction to the character, Jane opts to bow out of a large amount of the festivities she paid so much money to enjoy.
Reverting to a teenage summer romance, she chooses to dance to ‘80s music and make out with the stable hand (played by Flight of the Conchords's Bret McKenzie) vs. the faux Darcy-like aristocrats the actors around her are portraying.
Essentially suffering from a flip-flopping characterization, acts one and two of Austenland could also be called A Tale of Two Janes as we’re never exactly sure what Russell’s going to do next and why.
Unfortunately, it begins to completely fall apart midway through the second act when the guests and staff collaborate on a romantic play that does nothing more than eat up screen time and make you that much more grateful that Russell has TV's stellar The Americans to fall back on.
However, just when we think all hope is lost, the film nearly manages to redeem itself… once, that is our heroine manages to wise up and get the hell away from Austenland in a surprisingly terrific third act.
Serving up a vastly superior final twenty-minute coda to the nails-on-the-blackboard like cacophony that was the first hour, while it’s hard to imagine that many viewers would still be voluntarily watching at that point thanks to the convenience of the eject button on this recent DVD release, for those that are, Austenland manages to reward your patience.
In fact, the ending is so good that it makes me wonder how great the film could’ve been if all the gimmickry had been tossed out and Hess and Hale had spent less time trying to entertain and (in the manner of Austen) more time devoting itself to embracing the real life of a smart single woman who wants to heighten and make the best of reality, not simply run away from it.
For maybe if they would’ve done that they wouldn’t have lost so much money since the lack of creativity and character pride onscreen translated straight to box office prejudice offscreen by not giving the large global fan base of Austen devotees with high hopes a heroine and film worthy of the name Jane Austen(land).
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