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‘Austenland’ Stumbles Under Weight Of Muddled Plot, Strained Performances

A 30-something Jane Austen devotee (Keri Russell) travels to Regency-era England, where she falls in love with both a refined gentleman and a stableboy.

Or at least the guy (Flight of the Conchords’ Bret McKenzie) being paid to meticulously portray a stableboy when he isn’t hidden away in a shack, playing the saxophone and crooning along to Billy Ocean records.

Welcome to “Austenland,” a promising yet ultimately flawed exercise that feels like a Christopher Guest movie to which no one bothered to invite Christopher Guest.

Jane Hayes (Russell) is not so much an Austen fan as an addict. Her apartment is decorated like the bedroom of a deranged schoolgirl: dolls, embroidered pillows, framed silhouettes lining the walls, block letters spelling out “DARCY WAS HERE” above her bed. There’s even a chamber pot and a cardboard standee of Colin Firth as “Pride and Prejudice’s” Mr. Darcy.

It’s all played for laughs, but when you think about it, as Jane’s concerned roommate does, it’s quite tragic. Jane’s never really been in love because she can’t find anyone who can compete with a 200-year-old fictional character.

So it’s not all that surprising when she spends her life savings to fly to England to stay at what’s billed as “the world’s only immersive Austen experience.”

Guests are greeted by a staff of hunky servants in powdered wigs, travel in horse-drawn carriages and spend their days shooting fake pheasants, practicing needlepoint and playing whist. At the end of their stay, they’re promised a grand ball during which they’re guaranteed to fall in love. And no one ever is allowed to break character.

Think of it as Colonial Williamsburg for women who are destined to die alone in tiny apartments surrounded by dozens of cats.

Jane is paired with a fellow American guest (Jennifer Coolidge, essentially playing a mashup of everything you’ve come to expect from her), who’s been christened Miss Elizabeth Charming for the duration of her stay. Charming doesn’t care about Austen; she’s just there because she’s convinced she’d look great in “those wench dresses.” And her attempts at fitting in among her British counterparts sound like Eliza Doolittle after a mild stroke.

Austenland is run with an iron fist in a lace glove by Mrs. Wattlesbrook (a dour Jane Seymour), who’s assembled quite the stereotypical cast of characters: the noble Darcy type, Mr. Nobley (JJ Feild); the eager-to-please Colonel Andrews (James Callis) and the lusty Captain East (Ricky Whittle), whose arrival is delayed by his stint on a soap opera.

Jane and Nobley inevitably butt heads before noticing the obligatory sparks. Along the way, Jane also falls for that stableboy, who’s not much for the “ye olde-y stuff” and is all too eager to let her see the real him. But Jane, like the audience, can never truly be sure what’s real and what’s just part of the experience.

Viewers, though, are likely to stop caring long before she does.

There’s a fine line between cheekily overacting and straining so hard that the performances become uncomfortable to watch. With the exception of Russell, most everyone involved in “Austenland” stumbles, dances, frolics or leaps with reckless abandon over that line.

By the time they all get around to taking part in an original play, the whole thing collapses under the weight of its own silliness.

And the plot is so muddled, I had no idea Lady Amelia Heartwright (Georgia King) is a paying guest and not a fellow re-enactor until the final moments. Although if that information is considered a spoiler, whoops!

There’s something fun, or at least interesting, deep inside “Austenland” that someone with a stronger vision could have wrestled to the surface.

Its look at class distinctions — Charming is treated like royalty for having purchased the platinum experience while Jane is barely tolerated because she could only afford the copper level — never really lands. And the scenes of the Austenland employees during their time off, laying about the pool still in their powdered wigs, should have been a hoot.

But even though Shannon Hale, whose novel inspired the movie, co-wrote the script, co-writer and first-time director Jerusha Hess just doesn’t seem to get it.

The tone varies wildly. The resort seems to be employing half of England to entertain three guests. And an airport reunion isn’t played with so much as an ounce of either originality or irony.

Yes, being over-the-top is sort of the point of “Austenland.”

But in doing so, it would have been nice to have settled on something a little less ostentatious and a little more Austen-tatious.

Christopher Lawrence is the movie reviewer for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at clawrence@reviewjournal.com

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