Austenland is a clumsy comedy built on the shaky ground separating broad, low spoof from straight romance. Lumbering, miscast and ugly, it's a faintly promising idea utterly botched by Jerusha Hess, the less-talented co-writer/director wife of Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite).
Keri Russell is the least charming and least convincing she's ever been as plain Jane Hayes, who grew up enthralled by the novels of Jane Austen, stuck in bad relationships that have no prayer of measuring up to the epic love affairs of Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility.
But if she's willing to spend all her savings on a "life-changing" experience, there's this new British theme park: an immersive Jane Austen experience, full of early 19th-century bustles and bon mots and Empire waistlines and gala balls and romance, Regency-style.
Austenland is run by prim and profit-oriented Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour). Plucky Jane Hayes is plucked from the airport and delivered to the British countryside of Austen legend — a manor house filled with sometimes shirtless stable boys and always proper gentlemen fops and the dizzy ladies who love them. Jane gets to role-play, to endure insults and courtly entreaties offered by Mr. Nobley (JJ Feild), Austenland's version of Mr. Darcy.
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The bawdy American Pie mom Jennifer Coolidge is a rich ditz who figures "I'll look hot in these wench dresses." (She thinks the 1920s Rolls Royce that fetched her at the airport means "They even got us a car from the 1800s.")
They wear the corsets, eat the meals and enjoy the entertainments available to Austen-era folk — games of whist, taking turns at the pianoforte, and conversation. They must "eschew all things modern," so no cellphones.
Jane, on the budget-based "copper" level ticket, is wooed by the stubbly, swarthy servant Martin (Bret McKenzie) and offended by the prissy snob Mr. Nobley. Col. Andrews (James Callis) is a fop's fop, all mustache twirls and plummy, clueless observations about whatever enters that empty head of his. Georgia King almost steals the show as the adorably hammy "actress" house guest Lady Amelia Heartwright.
King and Coolidge are funny enough that they're almost in their own movie. Hess finds the odd laugh in the "backstage" bickering of the Austenland cast members, out of period costume and having drinks by the hidden pool.
But Austenland is a sour experience, never quite "getting" the whole Austen thing and stuck with a leading lady who is supposed to be a lonely wallflower and who all the Empire-waist dresses in the world cannot disguise was quite pregnant as she filmed this.
There's no sugarcoating the obvious — Russell should have withdrawn from the picture, and she could have been excused for hiring a hit man to take out whoever did her makeup.
Austenland finally gets on its feet after an hour, but it's never more than a theme park that isn't worth the price of admission.
PG-13 for some suggestive content and innuendo. Sony Pictures Classics. 1:35. Kentucky.