Opens Fri., Aug. 30 at Guild 45th, Pacific Place, and Lincoln Square. Rated PG-13. 97 minutes.
The premise sounds ripe for Christopher Guest: Let’s follow a naive young woman on her dream vacation to an immersive, role-playing theme park that brings alive the world of Jane Austen novels. Here be proud young men, haughty dowagers, and drawing rooms with tea—a Comic-Con for BBC addicts. But Guest isn’t doing this kind of projects anymore, and the actual execution of Austenland falls along much more conventional lines. Our heroine is Jane (the role’s a blank, but Keri Russell does her best with it), whose life-size cardboard cut-out of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy just isn’t enough to fill her Pride and Prejudice fantasy. She arrives at Austenland at the same time as a rich lady called Elizabeth Charming—the visitors all have vaguely Austenish names—played by the irrepressible Jennifer Coolidge, a veteran of Guest’s comedy troupe. I am grateful nobody repressed Coolidge, because her blowsy vocal delivery and unfiltered one-liners give Austenland its main source of oomph.
Once she begins mingling with the hired role-players, Jane is vaguely torn between Darcy-like Mr. Nobley (J.J. Feild) and rough-hewn stablehand Martin (Bret McKenzie, of Flight of the Conchords), but the film is too slack to generate even the rudimentary suspense that comedy needs. I did laugh, mostly at Coolidge and the spectacle of Austenland’s puffy-sleeved actors relaxing in their downtime. But overall the movie disappoints; even the topic of fiction fans who take their enthusiasm a little too seriously—recall William Shatner’s immortal words to the Trekkie faithful, “Get a life”—is only mildly touched on.
Austenland is adapted from a novel by Shannon Hale and directed by Jerusha Hess, making her helming debut after co-writing her husband Jared’s films Napoleon Dynamite and Gentlemen Broncos. A comparison is instructive: The crisp comic timing and sharply composed frames of Napoleon Dynamite have a lot to do with why that film is regularly hilarious, while the casual rhythm and loose visuals of Austenland are partly to blame for the movie’s inability to land all its punches. A useful concept and a game cast aren’t enough to make classic comedy, even if you’re deploying Coolidge in full loudmouth mode.