Don’t pack your bags, ‘Austenland’ isn’t worth the trip

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“Austenland,” the only movie that could make a member of “Flight of the Concords” not funny. Photo from The Hollywood Reporter.

“Austenland” is the kind of movie that has something for everyone. And by that, we mean that it has something to send everyone into teeth-grinding agony, regardless of gender, age or relationship status. Beneath its fluffy, innocent exterior is a surprisingly mean, hateful movie that takes you right out of its intended escapist reverie.

Poor Jane (Keri Russell). She’s thirty and recently single, which is apparently the worst thing ever for a woman in Movie Land. Never mind the fact that she seems pretty happy with not being in a relationship, since her obsession with Jane Austen’s novels (supposed obsession is more like it, she only ever name-checks “Pride and Prejudice” and even then only talks about Mr. Darcy) keeps her happy; it’s apparently time for her to find A Man, because her biological clock is ticking, don’t-ya know.

In a show of defiance, she retreats further into her Austen fantasy and plans a trip to an immersive Austen role-play experience with her entire life savings (!), meeting the ditzy Elizabeth Charming (Jennifer Coolidge) along the way.

If only the actors would be so kind as to shoot us and put us out of our misery. Photo from geektyrant.

If only the actors would be so kind as to shoot us and put us out of our misery. Photo from Geek Tyrant.

Unfortunately, Jane, who was apparently too stupid to look at the details of this experience, gets stuck with the smallest package and seems destined for misery. But hey, at least there’s cute guys like Martin (Bret McKenzie, of “Flight of the Concords”), a really chill groundskeeper, and Henry Nobley (J.J. Feild), a stuffy Mr. Darcy-ish type, to entertain her. Who will Jane find love with by the end of her stay? Who even cares?

Look, if the whole point of the movie is to satirize Austen’s novels and the hysteria surrounding them, then why doesn’t anyone at the resort actually act like an Austen character?  Oh, right, because that would actually require director/writer Jerusha Hess and author/screenwriter Shannon Hale to actually satirize something instead of just resorting to cheap slapstick gags, groan-worthy puns and gross-outs (most of these involving Coolidge in a particularly shrill, obnoxious performance).

Instead of embodying and mocking the “Masterpiece Theater” tropes that the film is apparently trying to poke fun at, everyone is a thoroughly modern and irritatingly broad stereotype. Jane Seymour’s head of operations at the resort is an ice-queen bitch for no reason other than Jane only bought the smallest package (that behavior must really suck for her business), and the film apparently needed a flimsy antagonist.

Georgia King plays Jane’s prissy rival who makes catty comments about Jane over dinner, but we later find out that she didn’t have any reason to do such a thing. James Callis’s character exists solely for his “hilariously” foppish behavior and so Elizabeth can nearly sexually assault him on multiple occasions. ‘Cuz sexual assault is hi-freakin’-larious when it happens to a guy (one will note there’s a scene certainly not played for laughs where a similar thing happens to Jane).

The exception to this rule is Jane, who isn’t even a stereotype. She’s a total blank, devoid of any character traits beyond her supposed obsession with Austen’s work.

Russell tries desperately to enliven her thankless role, but even she can’t make sense of Jane’s wishy-washy motivations, or why the heck she even likes Austen’s books in the first place, other than, “OMG, MR. DARCY IS SO HOT.” Yeah, we know.

And of course, this says nothing of the atrociously sexist and nasty commentary the film constantly imparts. Many needlessly acerbic jabs are taken at the resort members’ fan loyalty, as though it’s a sickness that needs curing rather than a harmless pastime.

One gets the feeling that Hess and Hale despise their characters, even the supposedly plucky and virtuous Jane, who gets put through the wringer of embarrassment and shame for our “pleasure” too many times to count.

The ending takes this to a ridiculous extreme, and forces Jane to forget the lesson she just learned in her experiences at the resort (sometimes, fantasy isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be, which is not a bad lesson in and of itself), just so she can be paired off with a man she barely knows and get back on track to her “normal” life, which she didn’t even want or need in the first place.

If men had made this film, one could write it off as stupidly, chauvinistically naïve. “Austenland,” however, was directed, written and produced entirely by women (including longtime Speakeasy nemesis Stephenie Meyer, surprise!), which speaks to this film’s feminism in the most depressing way possible.

Speakeasy Grade: D-

Starring: Keri Russell, Jennifer Coolidge, JJ Feild, Bret McKenzie, Jane Seymour

Rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and innuendo

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2 thoughts on “Don’t pack your bags, ‘Austenland’ isn’t worth the trip

  1. Clearly you’re not a Janeite. This movie is for Janeites. It’s an opportunity for us to feel a sense of community and laugh at ourselves as we recognize elements of ourselves on the screen. You’re also missing the point that this is an adaptation of P & P which is thee book and Darcy is thee guy. The movie has Lady Catherine and her nephew Darcy, Wickham and Elizabeth all behaving true to character. The other characters step in and out of the minor roles but the four mentioned are the core. I saw this in a theatre with other Janeite nerds (none of whom I knew) and we were all laughing at ourselves as we watched Jane go thru a hyper exaggerated version of some of our own life moments. It’s not sexist to have a character whom has reached adulthood and is longing for a life partner. That’s pretty normal. Her bedroom is filled with guy repellent. Even my feminist progressive confident PhD husband doesn’t want to hear me ramble on about Mr. Darcy and he is my Mr. Darcy. The film isn’t as great as Lost in Austen but it was fun. Most of the films I watch are serious indie movies by auteurs or foreign films. But sometimes you want to put on your I heart Darcy bag (you can buy them online from the Jane Austen Centre in Bath…there are also real Jane Austen themed vacations you can go on in England) and go to an over the top silly nerdy popcorn movie. Some people go to syfy conventions or to steampunk events. It doesn’t take from you. Just let the nerds have their thing.

    • “Clearly you’re not a Janeite. This movie is for Janeites.”

      I *am* a fan of Jane Austen’s work. I find it presumptuous of you to tell me that I’m not.

      “It’s an opportunity for us to feel a sense of community and laugh at ourselves as we recognize elements of ourselves on the screen.”

      . . . except how the character of Jane is a complete blank, so there’s nothing to identify with in her beyond her love of Austen’s novels. Which I mentioned in the review. And the other characters aren’t much better, particularly Coolidge, who’s a one-joke character where the joke is, “Tee hee, she claims to be a big Austen fan, but she just wants to get into a hot British guy’s pants!” I don’t know how anyone could feel good-natured about that.

      “You’re also missing the point that this is an adaptation of P & P which is thee book and Darcy is thee guy. The movie has Lady Catherine and her nephew Darcy, Wickham and Elizabeth all behaving true to character. The other characters step in and out of the minor roles but the four mentioned are the core.”

      Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Austen’s work could have deduced that this is an update of Pride and Prejudice, so it’s not even worth mentioning in the review. Just because I didn’t mention it doesn’t mean I didn’t notice. As for being “true to character” . . . nope, can’t agree with you. The Darcy character doesn’t come off nearly as icy and standoffish as he needs to, he’s too gallant. The Lady Catherine character has no sensible motivation for being so awful to Jane (the “she only bought the smallest package” thing does not make sense, you’d think word of mouth of that behavior would drive people away), since she has no personal attachment to the Darcy character (even though he’s still her son). Her own rules for the resort don’t make sense, either, since she’s absolutely Draconian about cell phones but two scenes later, she has a hot glue gun set up. Jane in this film does not have any of the steely resolve of Jane in the book, and the Wickham character’s only crime is doing what his boss told him to do, rather than secretly being a douchebag. None of those things are true to character.

      “I saw this in a theatre with other Janeite nerds (none of whom I knew) and we were all laughing at ourselves as we watched Jane go thru a hyper exaggerated version of some of our own life moments.”

      That’s great. I’m glad you had fun. I did not have fun. Hence the D-.

      “It’s not sexist to have a character whom has reached adulthood and is longing for a life partner. That’s pretty normal.”

      . . . except that she WASN’T looking for a relationship. She seemed happy with her Darcy stuff, it was LITERALLY EVERYONE ELSE that was telling her to get with a man. And what do you know, she does! Society knew what was best for her all along!

      “Her bedroom is filled with guy repellent.”

      If you were going by the assumption that all men are total immature meatheads who can’t accept that women have their own fantasies just like they do, then yes, the assumption that Mr. Darcy memorabilia is “guy repellent” would be correct.

      “The film isn’t as great as Lost in Austen but it was fun.”

      Well, we agree on one thing: “Lost in Austen” was good.

      “But sometimes you want to put on your I heart Darcy bag”

      Not me personally, no. Those things are tacky and overpriced.

      “. . . and go to an over the top silly nerdy popcorn movie.”

      I LOVE “over-the-top silly nerdy popcorn movies”. I reviewed “Iron Man 3” on this very site and gave it an A-. This movie was . . . not that. It existed in a realm where it wasn’t over-the-top enough to be full-on parody, but it wasn’t grounded enough to be a proper deconstruction of fandom. They tried to take both approaches and failed.

      “Some people go to syfy conventions or to steampunk events. It doesn’t take from you. Just let the nerds have their thing.”

      I find it ironic that you’re the one telling me this, because this entire comment seems to stem from you feeling wounded that I didn’t like a movie that you did. I’m glad you enjoyed it. I did not. At the same time, I did not judge anyone who liked it. If you really liked it, you shouldn’t feel the need to complain to a random stranger on the Internet about other people not sharing your opinion.

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