Review: Austenland (Sundance 2013)
PLOT: Jane (Keri Russell) is a lonely gal in her mid-thirties, whose love of Jane Austen has turned into an obsession. Not only is her apartment a shrine to Mr. Darcy of PRIDE & PREJUDICE, but her love life is non-existent, with her holding every man she meets up to this impossible standard. When a new vacation resort called Austenland is opened, Jane hops on the first plane to London for a week spent in a slavish recreation of the Regency era. There's also the promise of new love, with two suitors battling for her affections. But how much is fantasy, and how much is reality?
REVIEW: How the heck did AUSTENLAND make it into the U.S main competition at Sundance? Basically, AUSTENLAND is a Katherine Heigl movie- minus Heigl (meaning it's watchable)- and there's absolutely nothing here that puts it a cut above any other run-of-the-mill rom-com to hit screens lately. It's utterly conventional. Oh yeah, and it's produced by Stephenie Meyer (TWILIGHT) , although before anyone accuses me of being biased- I didn't know this until well after seeing the film- by which time my negative opinion was already firmly established.
To be fair to writer- director Jerusha Hess (sister of NAPOLEON DYNAMITE director Jared Hess) I might not have hated this so much if I had seen it outside of Sundance, but alongside so many interesting films, sitting through it was not only a waste of time, but it was almost embarrassing. This is one of those rom-com's squarely established as wish-fulfillment for a very particular audience- which I would classify as the older non-tween TWILIGHT fans.
Basically, AUSTENLAND is a cartoon- with no one ever, for one moment- acting like they hail from the real world. Jennifer Coolidge, as Russell's fellow AUSTENLAND guest, is especially over the top- acting in a way that makes her turn as Stifler's mom look like a model of restraint. Everyone else is just as hammy- although, I have to give BATTLESTAR GALACTICA's James Callis a bit of credit for actually being amusing in this regard. The only times I ever cracked a smile were the scenes featuring him as a particularly enthusiastic AUSTENLAND actor- coming off as a funny parody of the overly sincere BBC acting of past Austen productions.
I suppose Keri Russell is also due a certain amount of credit, as she's a likable actress whose presence makes AUSTENLAND less painful to watch than it would have been otherwise. Still, she seems too smart for the part, as it strains believability that this Austen fanatic would so quickly adopt the “I'm too smart to fall for all of this” attitude that she displays too early in the film. Some more naivete would have been appropriate.
As her battling suitors, Bret McKenzie plays Martin, the humble stable-boy, whose wit and love of eighties easy-listening endears him to Jane, and J.J Field as the aloof, Darcy-esque figure Mr. Nobley. To Hess's credit, who Jane's going to inevitably end up with isn't quite as predictable as it first seems, although- I can't say I really cared either way. Expect lots (and lots) of eighties pop-songs, and a forced “sing-along” of “Hot in Here” while you're waiting to find out.
To be sure, I'm not the target demo for a movie like AUSTENLAND, but I like to think I can appreciate good films outside of my wheelhouse. To me, this was not one of them, and having such a vapid rom-com in the main competition is puzzling. That said, I wouldn't be surprised if this gets picked up by a big studio on the basis of Meyer's name alone.