Sunday, April 6, 2014

Defying Its Own Premise: Austenland Underwhelms!

The Good: Moments of humor, Moments of performance, Basic concept
The Bad: Nonsensically predictable plot, Bland characterization/development, Pacing
The Basics: When one of the best aspects of a film is Jennifer Coolidge performing an American accent, the movie is not destined for greatness: so it is with Austenland!

I like going into movies completely unprepared sometimes. It’s a nice change for me to discover a film on DVD that I never knew existed and going into them with minimal knowledge. Such is how it was with Austenland, a romantic comedy that suddenly appeared at my local library in the “new arrivals” shelf. Having now watched it with my wife – both of us are fans of Jane Austen novels – it was pretty clear to us why the movie arrived and disappeared from limited release in the U.S. without fanfare. Austenland is not a terrible movie, but it makes no real sense.

When I write that the film makes no real sense, it is impossible to discuss the movie without some sense of spoilers from either Austenland or every Jane Austen novel ever (though it’s hard to call something a spoiler when it has been out for hundreds of years). The fundamental problem with Austenland is that the protagonist is supposedly an expert in the works of Jane Austen (she’s an obsessive fan who is about to shell out her life savings for an Austenesque immersive experience), but she is unable to recognize the basic conceits of those novels. Austen set up the formula for the romantic novel of the 18th Century and it was pretty obvious after a book or two that Austen had a formula. As a result, Jane Hayes, in the process of spending her life savings on an immersive Austenesque experience should be able to recognize her place in that formula. Jane Austen’s formula is simple: woman meets two men, one who seems desirable, the other who is off-putting and exhibits no interest in the woman. In the process of the story, the woman comes to realize that the desirable guy is actually loathsome and the loathsome guy is actually desirable and desires her. Jane Hayes – who is supposed to be an obsessive fan of Jane Austen’s works – does not seem to recognize the conceits or her place within that formula.

Against the judgment of her family, Jane Hayes decides that she is tired of trying the dating scene. Her bedroom is a virtual shrine to Mr. Darcy from Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice (and the BBC version of it with Colin Firth), so Jane decides to make a pilgrimage to Austenland. Austenland is a theme park/immersive tour experience in the UK that puts visitors in their own Jane Austen-like romantic experience. Before arriving at the manor, Hayes meets Elizabeth Charming, a wealthy woman who is on the premium Austenland experience. Having only been able to afford the Copper Level experience for Austenland, Jane quickly finds herself having an underwhelming time as an orphaned character at Austenland.

As a result of feeling left-out and not at all attracted to the guy who seems selected for her, Jane ends up palling around with Martin, the stablehand. Put off by Henry Nobley and harassed by Mr. Wattlesbrook, the manor-owner’s husband, Jane breaks the no technology rule, but is saved by Lady Amelia Heartwright (from whom she and Charming stole clothing early in the experience). As her time at Austenland nears a close, though, Jane finds herself hit on by someone she did not expect – even though she denies the advances of Martin after she threatens to expose Wattlesbrook’s grabbiness.

Austenland has a good set-up, but quickly turns into a formulaic mess. The moment viewers who recognize anything about Jane Austen’s works see Martin and Nobley in proximity, who Jane Hayes is intended to end up with is painfully obvious. In that regard, Austenland is utterly unsurprising and uninteresting. The formula is not at all defied in Austenland and that means that the plot drags out waiting for Jane to realize what the viewer does from the outset.

More than that, Hayes is completely undermined as a character because of her failure to recognize her place in the formula. Hayes is initially characterized as smart, but socially-awkward. By the end of Austenland, she just seems like a twit. Unfortunately for actress Keri Russell, who plays Jane, there is nothing the actress can do to save the role. The character is written poorly into a formula from which she cannot escape.

A lot of the fun in Austenland is watching Jennifer Coolidge play Charming with an American accent. Coolidge is stuck in her usual, familiar, sidekick role . . . this time without her over-the-top accent being played upon for humor. JJ Feild is good as Nobley and Bret McKenzie has good on-screen chemistry for the male lead of Austenland.

Ultimately, though, Austenland is a good idea, poorly executed and it’s no surprise that it did not do very well at the box office. This will not be part of the enduring legacy of Jane Seymour (Mrs. Wattlesbrook) or any of the others who performed in it.

For other films set in a classic English setting, please visit my reviews of:
Pride And Prejudice
Nicholas Nickleby
Mansfield Park


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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