Jane Austen had a unique skill for crafting stories of enviable romance that were made all the more engaging by her biting wit and clever social commentary. It’s no wonder her books—like Pride & Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Mansfield--have inspired filmmakers again and again. Directors like Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice), Ang Lee (Sense and Sensibility), and Patricia Rozema (Mansfield Park) have made beautiful films from her work, vibrant with emotional honesty and poignant performances. Others translate her tales of overthinking young women into wonderfully funny modern classics, like Amy Heckerling’s Emma-inspired Clueless or Sharon Macguire’s Bridget Jones’s Diary. Still others like Robin Swicord, helmer of The Jane Austen Book Club, and Dan Zeff, director of the charming mini-series Lost In Austen, threw contemporary-Austen obsessed protagonists into familiar situations that defy the rules the iconic author laid out, achieving bubbly and rewarding narratives clearly spun out from Austen inspiration. Then there’s Jerusha Hess’s Austenland, which could fit into the last category if it weren’t so painfully stupid.
I made it a point to list all of the movies (and mini-series) above because I would recommend each and every one of them before I would ever tell anyone to watch Austenland. Based on a novel by Shannon Hale, this rom-com follows American gal Jane Hayes (Keri Russell) on what she hopes will be a life-changing romantic adventure. Jane is in her 30s, and single. (Heaven forbid!) A blink-and-you’ll-miss-it first act suggests her threatening spinsterhood looms because of two things: 1) modern men are no Mr. Darcy, and 2) she is obsessed with Mr. Darcy. To get the latter point across, her apartment is covered with various Darcy-centric memorabilia including a full-sized cardboard figure of Colin Firth as Darcy from the iconic BBC Pride and Prejudice mini-series—which I would also suggest watching instead of this movie.
To solve her love slump Jane decides to spend her entire life savings to go to Austenland, an English theme park where pathetic women pay to be romanced by actors while everyone dresses up and acts like it’s the early 1800s. Let me repeat that: she spends her entire life savings on a trip where a man is paid to pretend he’s falling in love with her. It’s like live-action-role-play meets prostitution without the sex, as if that as a concept makes any sense.
As Jane rushes off to take this trip, I had hoped the film would make some effort to explain how paying strangers to play wooing suitors would fix her life. Instead, it introduces a barrage of other characters just as confounding and senseless as Jane. Her companions/rivals for fake love are a crass and wildly wealthy American (Jennifer Coolidge) who seems incredibly enthusiastic for the theme resort even though she’s never heard of Pride & Prejudice, and a flirtatious and mysterious blonde (Georgia King) who is alternately catty and kind, depending on what the plot demands. A final reveal of who she really gives no worthwhile insight, opting instead for a lame twist that is sadly one of many.
Under the sneering countenance of the resort’s owner (Jane Seymour), the women fight for the affections of a Darcy imitation called Mr. Henry Nobley (J.J. Feild), a flamboyant Colonel Andrews (James Callis), and a dashing and oft-shirtless pirate Captain George East (Ricky Whittle). But despite Jane’s long-held desire to be in this very world, she soon grows bored of these archetypal men (to be fair, so did I), so she begins a secret affair with a lowly stable hand named Martin (Bret McKenzie). Listening to modern music in his cabin establishes him as a rebel who seems to reject the Regency-era mimicry and faux romances. Accordingly Jane falls for him hard and begins sneering at the Darcy doppelganger she’s so long wished for.
From there, Hess and Hale, who co-wrote the screenplay, attempt to mimic the kind of plot and character reversals that are a key and celebrated element of Austen’s work. We learn everything is not as it seems, but the truth is so unsurprising that it’s difficult to know if we’re meant to think Jane is incredibly stupid, or if Hess and Hale assume we are. But let’s set aside for a moment that the plot and the characters’ motivations are incomprehensible. I struggle to think of any part of Austenland that would make it worth watching.
Granted, Coolidge, a fantastic comedic actress, scores a few laughs with her ugly American, and McKenzie is a charming romantic lead. But neither is given enough to play with. Instead, much of the focus goes to the tumultuous relationship between Jane and Henry. Sadly, Russell—for all her adorability—can’t save this ridiculous movie. Worse yet, she has virtually no chemistry with her Darcy co-star Feild, making their possible romance seem more a required plot point than a sparking attraction. Beyond this, Hess manages none of the insight or wit of the works she references in only the most superficial ways, and it makes for a bland and boring experience. This is all the more shocking considering Hess co-wrote such dedicatedly colorful films as Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre and Gentleman Bronchos. But in her directorial debut, everything feels muted and mindless.
Usually I cringe when people use the phrase “chick flick” in place of "romantic comedy" because they often mean ‘a poorly written movie that is meant to appeal to women solely because it is about a female protagonist, romance and includes at least one makeover sequence with a peppy pop song blaring in the background.’ But in that respect, Austenland is a chick flick. And frankly, as a woman who this is clearly meant to appeal to—I like love stories and Austen!—I’m insulted. Why can’t a movie have romance and fashion, but also have an engaging heroine and plot that makes even a little bit of sense!? It’s really not too much to ask. A bunch of the films up top managed it. Go see those.