Far from being tedious or tiresome, the numerous meta-fictional conceits at play in co-writer/director Jerusha Hess' romantic comedy Austenland are both funny and thoughtful. They play a crucial part in this intelligent, sympathetic, and satirical feature-film debut.
Keri Russell plays Jane, a thirtysomething woman whose lackluster love life can be traced to her infatuation with the works of 19th-century English novelist Jane Austen — and to her obsession with Colin Firth's performance as Mr. Darcy in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride & Prejudice. In a gesture that's more delusional than romantic, Jane shakes her life up by blowing her savings on a trip to the film's titular theme park, an English country estate whose dotty proprietor (Jane Seymour) ensures Jane that "all of our guests will experience romance with one of our actors."
Once she settles in at Austenland, Jane serves as the sensible eye of a storm of loonies, including the aforementioned actors and a pair of richer fellow tourists. The crisscrossing eccentricities of the supporting cast spark some of the year's most original laughs. The effete "Colonel Andrews" (James Callis), who cribs his romantic patter from the Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive," spends much of the film grimacing his way through an awkwardly arranged courtship with Miss Elizabeth Charming (Jennifer Coolidge). As expected, Miss Charming, a breathy-voiced airhead who looks like a '50s pinup girl gone to seed, gets plenty of obvious chuckles. But she reserves her best stuff for the film's second half, as when she interrupts a handsome seaman's tall tale by crying out, "Did you DIE?"
Unfortunately, Jane doesn't share Miss Charming's moneyed amenities; because she bought the cheaper "copper" vacation package, she has to stay in the estate's basement. Nevertheless, she still gets involved in a couple of romantic entanglements. Will she choose handsome, self-effacing stable boy Martin (Bret McKenzie) or dismissive, aloof Mr. Nobley (JJ Feild)? Perhaps the better question to ask is, "Is not general incivility the very essence of love?"
Anachronisms and modern intrusions complicate both the film and the potential romances. Jane's attempts to engage the actors in Restoration English banter stumble once she discovers that Martin the stable boy sings along in his barn to easy-listening hits from the 1980s. And the longer she stays at Austenland, the more she has to revise and scrutinize not just her love for Austen but her faith in romantic-comedy clichés. In the film's freshest mash-up, Jane swipes some fancier dresses from another guest, takes charge of her own story, and wows everyone during a slow-motion montage set to "Bette Davis Eyes."
An even greater tension in Austenland comes from how far the actors and the guests will take their roles. Jane enjoys herself, but she comes dangerously close to ignoring novelist Edith Wharton's observation that "the actors know that real life is on the other side of the footlights."
The denouement here is highly satisfying. But do stick around for the closing credits, which feature the definitive version of Nelly's "Hot in Herre."
Opens Friday, September 13th
Ridgeway Cinema Grill