“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.
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