‘Austenland’ offers cheap laughs but a decent Keri Russell

James Callis, Jennifer Coolidge, Bret McKenzie and Keri Russell try out old-timey weaponry in "Austenland." Credit: Sony Pictures Classics
James Callis, Jennifer Coolidge, Bret McKenzie and Keri Russell try out old-timey weaponry in “Austenland.”
Credit: Sony Pictures Classics

Director: Jerusha Hess
Stars: Keri Russell, Jennifer Coolidge
Rating: PG-13
2 (out of 5) Globes

Jane Austenheads are easy targets, which is probably what attracted filmmaker Jerusha Hess. Her previous work, directed by her husband Jared, has been “Napoleon Dynamite,” “Nacho Libre” and “Gentlemen Broncos,” films that take semi-loving potshots at subjects (Midwesterners, Mexican wrestlers, fantasy novelists) that provide cheap laughs. In “Austenland,” Keri Russell plays Jane, a dateless thirtysomething unhealthily in thrall to Fitzwilliam Darcy — or at least Colin Firth’s wet-shirted incarnation of him in the 1995 BBC version of “Pride and Prejudice.” She has a life-size cutout of Firth in her Austen-packed apartment, because of course she does.

When she hears of a resort in the English countryside that simulates the Austen experience, complete with tight corsets and furtive, contact-less courtship, she hops to it. There, she finds an undermining countess/owner (Jane Seymour) who pronounces “aficionado” the fancy way, a reliably disinterested Darcy type (JJ Feild) and a dreamy stable boy (Bret McKenzie) who’s prone to break the “no touching” policy.

What proceeds are simple jokes, in particular any of those including Jennifer Coolidge as a fellow patron whose vulgar routine goes from somewhat amusing to enervating then back and forth for the remainder of the film. There’s an obviously gay “suitor” (James Callis), who tries not to recoil at Coolidge’s lusty advances. What there aren’t are a lot of Austen-specific jokes.

It’s clear that Hess has read “Pride and Prejudice” — or at least seen one of the movies — as Jane winds up having very nearly the same reaction to Feild’s Darcy-esque actor: revulsion at his bad attitude, then slow thawing as he proves unexpectedly strapping. But Jane winds up too quickly souring on her trip for any real fun to be had. Almost immediately she grows weary of the refined chitchat and piano interludes, and nips off for dalliances with McKenzie’s smooth stableboy.

Somewhere in the film is a fairly savage satire about being defined and entrapped by our cultural intake. But so-so gags, repeated ad nauseum, rule the day. Only Russell escapes alive. Where everyone else is a broad caricature, she oozes real humanity. She starts as a stereotype of stunted adolescence, disappointed that modern life barely resembles two centuries hence, but soon reveals a more levelheaded persona — albeit one who still giggles uninhibitedly when forward men in tight attire work their way up her arm. Thanks to her, “Austenland” occasionally has a human pulse.


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