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Austenland is a romantic comedy about 30-something, single Jane Hayes, a seemingly normal young woman with a secret: her obsession with Mr. Darcy-as played by Colin Firth in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice-is ruining her love life; no real man can compare. But when she decides to spend her life savings on a trip to an English resort catering to Austen-crazed women, Jane's fantasies of meeting the perfect Regency-era gentleman suddenly become more real than she ever could have imagined. Written by
I was roped into a screening of "Austenland" by my well-meaning, Jane Austen-admiring wife. Ninety-seven minutes later, we left the theater shaking our heads. Not because we were offended by the idea of someone making a satirical movie about a modern young woman who was so obsessed with Jane Austen's milieu that she wanted to live in it, but because that ship sailed five years ago, in the form of "Lost in Austen" -- a movie that was everything this film was not.
Had I known in advance that "Austenland" was directed and co-written by the half-wit half-responsible for "Napoleon Dynamite", I might've stayed home. If ever comparing two structurally similar films threw into high relief the shortcomings of one of them, "Lost in Austen" does it to "Austenland". The latter comes across as a script written in two weeks by a rather stupid college sophomore as a class project. No line was too trite, no joke too juvenile, no humor too obvious to not get the full scenery-chewing treatment here.
Even within the film's internal logic, the protagonist made utterly no sense. Here's a young woman who is supposedly so obsessed with Austen, her writing and her virtues that she spends her life savings on an immersive week in that very environment, yet she caves-in within 24 hours, describes being indoors as "stifling", and is soon making out with a stablehand! The contempt she displays for Austen's mores is one more reason the viewer loses any sympathy for her. And honestly, she's not that special. Take away her obsession with Austen (and the film effectively does that within the first 20 minutes), and she's just another vapid college student who dresses like a slob.
Much has been written elsewhere about Jennifer Cooledge, the *other* American who supposedly paid for a week in "Austenland". I thoroughly enjoyed her as a minor character in "A Mighty Wind" and "Best in Show", but in those, she greatly benefited from the writing talents of Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy. Christopher Guest has had boils that could write more clever dialogue than Jerusha Hess is capable of. While I wanted to like Cooledge in this, there was simply no way to get beyond the fact that her character is the broadest broad who ever trod the boards.
One gimmick I've come to loathe in recent films was introduced by Sophia Coppola in "Marie-Antoinette" -- that of interspersing modern pop songs at length throughout the film. "Marie-Antoinette" somewhat worked since Coppola used the juxtaposition of modern songs to make the audience reappraise that late-18th century queen as a modern woman in modern material culture. "Austenland", on the other hand, just uses pop songs to tell the audience what it should be feeling at that moment. Every time this movie is screened, someone in the audience is going to whisper to their significant other "Hey! Remember when we used to make out to that Cure song?" -and move a little closer.
There are exactly three things I could find to like about "Austenland", for which I gave it one star each. The first is for the setting; West Wycombe is always lovely. The second is for Bret McKenzie, the roguish stablehand with a smooth, if improbable line for every occasion (he was far better, tho', in "Flight of the Conchords"). And the third is for J.J. Feild, whose earnest and understated performance is a welcome relief from all of the other in-your-face, turned-up-to-eleven performances. But ultimately, these three aren't nearly enough to save "Austenland" from being a mediocre and tiresome attempt at a romantic comedy. Jane Austen would've shuddered at the thought of such a film exploiting her name and work.
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