97 min., rated PG-13.
The first directorial effort of "Napoleon Dynamite"/"Nacho Libre"/"Gentlemen Broncos" co-scribe Jerusha Hess, "Austenland" was harshly dismissed when it hit theaters last summer. The film is occasionally amusing without ever mining as much humor out of its premise as would be hoped, but loathing it would be like stepping on a cute, inoffensive little puppy. Stemming from the 2007 chick-lit novel by Shannon Hale, the airy "Austenland" is co-written by Hess and Hale, and the writer-director's labored sensibility might have been ill-matched with the author's fond sense of humor. But, for the most part, a silly-sweet tone and likable cast carry it far enough to the status of a pleasantly goofy, featherweight trifle.
Obsessed with everything Jane Austen, to the point that she has a cardboard cutout of Colin Firth's Mr. Darcy from BBC miniseries "Pride and Prejudice" and drinks out of teacups, modest lonely heart Jane Hayes (Keri Russell) leaves her desk job and blows her entire life savings on Austenland, a British reenactment park devoted to Jane Austen novels. She has dreamt of such an opportunity for so long and just wants her happily ever after with one of the paying guests and paid actors playing Mr. Darcy types. When Jane finally arrives with the saucy, wealthy Miss Elizabeth Charming (Jennifer Coolidge) whom she meets at the airport, she realizes the travel agent set her up with the cheap package, as stuffy hostess Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour) treats her as an Austen heroine of lower social status, a plainly dressed servant named Miss Erstwhile. By the end of the scripted trip, a ball approaches, so will Jane end up with one of her suitors, valiant Mr. Henry Nobley (JJ Feild) whom she shares banter with, or the help, humble stable boy Martin (Bret McKenzie)? Only one is them is being sincere and actually looking for love.
Back in her wheelhouse of romantic comedies since 2007's irresistibly sweet-as-pie "Waitress," Russell is a sunny, charming presence that the film skates by on. Jane makes for a mild protagonist to follow before she takes charge of her part in the refined Austen setting. The brassy Coolidge is always good for a few broad, silly laughs, and the same goes here as the lip-smacking, cluelessly blowsy Elizabeth Charming. Her comic-relief character, not far removed from her hilarious, sledgehammer-subtle shtick as Paulette in "Legally Blonde," stands out like a tacky flamingo ornament on the lawn of the Regency-era estate. She's a "tally-ho!"-shrieking hoot, and if anyone has to mug like an imbecilic vulgarian, be glad it's Coolidge (dancing at the ball with her effeminate bachelor of choice, she howls, "You're so light on your feet, you're like a nutcracker!"). As the two men Jane must choose from, Feild and McKenzie flit between bland and dashing, but both characters are such enigmatic bores that it's hard to take stock in either romance.
Meant to be a farcical comedy of manners that spoofs Jane Austen mania, "Austenland" is really just an archaic, scatterbrained, if genteelly mounted, wish-fulfillment romantic comedy. It doesn't try to find recognizable human behavior in this wacky situation—these people are paying for a theatrical Jane Austen-themed getaway after all, so nobody's really hailing from an authentic world. And Jane/Miss Erstwhile tickling the ivories to Nelly's "Hot in Herre" is about as edgy as the film gets, but how can one hate a montage of the "ugly duckling" confidently turning into a swan, cued to the Kim Carnes hit "Bette Davis Eyes"? In sum, though, Austenites should certainly get the most out of this wispy lark.
Grade: C +