Jane Austen inspires imitation. Her early-19th century romantic novels have defied time, with adaptations ranging from “Clueless” (based on “Emma”) and “Bridget Jones’s Diary” (“Pride and Prejudice”) to a series of novels that depict her as a vampire. Add to the list “Austenland,” a novel by Shannon Hale adapted for the big screen courtesy of “Napoleon Dynamite” writer and first-time director Jerusha Hess. It opens here Friday.
Keri Russell stars as Jane Hayes, a Mr. Darcy fanatic who spends her savings on Austenland, an immersive vacation experience in the British countryside that promises to transform participants into Austen’s great heroines, complete with empire-waist gowns, needlepoint to pass the time and love interests, played by actors. (But “no touching,” insists unhinged Austenland proprietor Mrs. Wattlesbrook, played by Jane Seymour.)
Upon arriving, Jane is put in the servants’ quarters, given that she can afford only the budget package, and dressed in dowdy duds, while the other guests are lavished with fine gowns and ostentatious accommodations. But fancy dresses are nothing compared with love, and Jane finds herself with more than she bargained for, even though it’s difficult to discern how much is real and how much is scripted. She catches the eye of not only the handsome Darcyesque Mr. Nobley (J.J. Feild), but also the good-natured Martin, a farmhand played by Bret McKenzie of “Flight of the Conchords.”
In other words, the movie has an Austen-like plot about an Austen obsessive. And while Hess laboriously checks off so many familiar scenarios, from characters caught in rainstorms and upper-class idiots blathering on about nonsense to an awkward moment at the pianoforte, the film doesn’t have so much of what makes Austen transcendent. In place of sharp witticisms, we have Jennifer Coolidge, playing rich guest Elizabeth Charming, who tries to get into the spirit by aping an English accent and yelling “tallyho.”
But, more important, there’s no spirited heroine. Jane Hayes isn’t sassy like Elizabeth Bennet or warm like Emma Woodhouse; she has neither the vivaciousness of Marianne Dashwood nor the clearheaded logic of her older sister, Elinor. She’s nice, sure, but she’s also kind of a caricature. Instead of character development, the film offers a montage of over-the-top scenarios in which Jane forces a disinterested date to watch “Pride & Prejudice,” drinks from dainty, rose-adorned teacups and kisses her life-size cardboard cutout of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. The often brilliant Russell seems to embrace the role with tepid enthusiasm.
The plot feels tenuous and disorganized but also strangely predictable. Whenever Jane takes her leave from the other guests and actors, it’s clear she will immediately run into Martin. And as soon as she bids Martin adieu, she will no doubt cross paths with Mr. Nobley. And although there’s an attempt to throw a twist into the story, it’s readily apparent from the beginning.
If nothing else, “Austenland” is a reminder of what continues to make the trailblazing author so wonderful. No matter how bleak things seem, Austen’s characters always manage to find a euphoric and contagious happiness. And that kind of feeling needs to be earned. It can’t be replicated with a checklist of plot points.
1½ star (Out of four)
Starring: Keri Russell, J.J. Feild, Jennifer Coolidge, Bret McKenzie
Director: Jerusha Hess
Running time: 97 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for some suggestive content and innuendo.