Since it's called Austenland, and since it's a romantic comedy, you probably expect it to open with "It's a truth universally acknowledged" and to wrap with one lovesick sap madly dashing after another, right up to an airport's departure gates, even though both presumably have cell phones and could just work things out like normal people. You wouldn't be that far off in those particulars, but as with all stories of new love, in the world and in our fictions, it's the life in the middle that counts, the hesitations and first kisses and surprise obstacles.
Austenland nails all of that with uncommon spirit and wit. That rococo Pride and Prejudice-aping chatter at the opening is good, too, as it's intentionally chintzy and delivered by Jane Seymour clutching a taxidermy lamb. By my count, this is the fifth likable-to-excellent romantic comedy to open this summer, following I Give It a Year, In a World..., The To Do List, and the less comic The Spectacular Now.
This time, the young woman is played by Keri Russell, whose easy radiance remains a pleasure even when some sequences flag: The actress is fashioned from that mystery clay that makes the true stars ridiculously beautiful while also seeming like humble, everyday folks who could really use our rooting for them from our theater seats. Russell plays the usual unmarried, just-turned-thirty heroine who can't get through three scenes without someone mentioning her biological clock. She also has a best friend whose job in life is to deliver exposition through mock incredulity: "Wait, you're telling me that you're going to blah blah blah?" The twist: Russell's Jane is a geek for Jane Austen in a way that combines familiar hardcore fandom — collectibles, a trophy room, the ability to recite canonical materials chapter and verse — with the zeal of a bonkers Etsy artist. Her Restoration dollhouse and needlepoint throw pillows are the funniest set dressing this side of a Wes Anderson picture — and they look like a person put them there rather than an installation artist.
Directed by Jerusha Hess. Written by Jerusha Hess and Shannon Hale. Starring Keri Russell, JJ Feild, Bret McKenzie, Jennifer Coolidge and Jane Seymour.
After a romantic disappointment, Jane elects to fly off to England for a week at pricey Austenland, a sort of B&B, Restoration cosplay camp, and act-along dinner theater. There, she and the other guests, all women, will don sumptuous gowns, gather for tea, jaunt about the gardens, and volley epithets with hunky actors playing chivalrous gents right out of Emma. Then, at week's end, there's to be a ball — and, wouldn't you know it, a rash of impassioned proposals from the men, who are paid to pair up with the guests. It is, in short, a parody of everything superficial in Austen and the films based on her works, a burlesque of the novels' surfaces that is to the warm, brittle heart of the books themselves what fish sticks are to fresh mahi-mahi.
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Jane is quickly disillusioned by Austenland and its pricey (but cheap) fantasies. She takes an immediate dislike to the actor playing her Mr. Darcy figure (JJ Feild) and instead strikes up a lively flirtation with a dashing young man (Bret McKenzie) who toils in the stables. Being a romantic-comedy lead, Jane meets a surrogate BFF as soon as she arrives in London; because this is a much-better-than-average romantic comedy, that new friend is played by Jennifer Coolidge, in something like horny-toddler mode. Her Miss Charming is loud, dumb, crude, insulting, and so filthy rich she gets away with anything she wants.
To say more about the plot would be a disservice to the film's resonant, satisfying surprises. Like I Give It a Year, this is the rare movie love story that generates suspense about who will wind up with whom; like The To Do List, its lead winds up making her own practical, self-respecting choices, no matter how the men plead. And as with The Spectacular Now, the ending is a bit of an audience-pleasing cop-out, a retreat into formula after eighty minutes or so of upending it.
But those upendings are memorable, the cast dishy fun, and Jerusha Hess and Shannon Hale's breeze of a script (based on Hale's novel) is smart about the allure of fictional romances. Austenland the place is built upon a Harlequin paperback's idea of love, all frills and bric-a-brac and glistening hunks who whisper impossible flattery; Austenland the movie is built on the understanding that fantasy is healthy until you elect to live in it — and that sometimes a chase to the airport isn't something you should bother with in the real world. Too bad the director and writer don't stick the landing.