Be it in novels, on television, or in the movies, love stories in popular culture have always had the (perhaps unintended) effect of creating unrealistic expectations of what romance should be. It's this tendency that makes the genre so ripe for a good satirical takedown every now and again.
Deflating these idealized notions of love through light-hearted spoofery is what I assume the new comedy "Austenland" is attempting to achieve, but it's difficult to tell because, frankly, the movie is a big ol' mess. The directing debut of Jerusha Hess (co-writer of "Napoleon Dynamite"), and based on the 2007 novel by Shannon Hale, "Austenland" manages to squander a reasonably clever premise, along with a talented ensemble of actors.
Keri Russell stars as Jane, an obsessive Jane Austen fan who's been particularly unlucky in love. Fed up with her lackluster personal life, Jane decides to cash in her life savings for the chance to fulfill a lifelong dream of traveling to Austenland, a theme park/resort in the English countryside that provides paying customers with an "immersive Jane Austen experience." Meaning that it allows lovesick women the chance to savor life in the Regency era, and meet their very own real-life Mr. Darcy, as portrayed by a stable of paid performers — sort of like the reenactors you find working at historical museums. The park's owner, the snooty Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour), emphatically states that the romancing is never to cross the line into actual sex, presumably to explain the thin line that separates the park from a more traditional escort service.
En route, Jane meets and befriends another Austenland vacationer, Elizabeth Charming (the always delightful Jennifer Coolidge). While Jane is only able to afford the bare-bones "Copper Package," the film makes much ado about the ways in which her vacation differs from the Platinum version enjoyed by the well-off Elizabeth. Forced to stay in the servants' quarters and saddled with the moniker "Miss Estwhile," Jane quickly becomes disillusioned with her fantasy holiday. Veering off the track laid out for her, she soon falls for Martin (Bret McKenzie, "Flight of the Conchords"), the park's groundskeeper, who's supposedly not meant to be partaking in the role-playing activities. As the two grow closer, Jane is simultaneously being courted by the resort's Mr. Darcy stand-in, Mr. Nobley (JJ Feild). She soon finds herself struggling to distinguish between real-life love and the fantasy romance that Austenland is peddling.
The actors do their best to liven up the rather limp material they're given. Everyone in this movie is capable of being funny, and has been in a variety of other roles, but the writing lets them down at every turn. Keri Russell has a sweet, appealing screen presence, but as a result, she's not the most convincing at playing the flighty, mousy pushover she's called upon to portray here. It's a testament to Jennifer Coolidge's talent that she was able to make me laugh out loud three times throughout the course of the movie, and that has everything to do with her delivery of the lines instead of the lines themselves. Still, she's simply called upon to play the stock Jennifer Coolidge part: the clueless, slightly trashy woman who in her own mind views herself as a paragon of good taste and style. We've seen her in this role dozens of times, always with more success. McKenzie is fine, and Feild, intentionally or not, comes across exactly like every other onscreen Mr. Darcy you've ever seen.
"Austenland" traffics in broad comedy, but the film occupies an awkward middle ground where the audience is meant to laugh at the ridiculousness of what we're seeing, but simultaneously we're supposed to care about Jane's love life and hope that she eventually finds happiness. But the crucial element that would make that balance succeed is having characters that seem relatable and at least somewhat realistic, despite their wacky situations. Hess' script makes no effort to understand or even explain Jane's obsession, and in the end it doesn't matter, since as soon as she arrives at Austenland, she seems to want no part in it. Hess' direction is slack to the point of feeling like a rough cut, and Nick Fenton's editing of the film doesn't do her any favors, allowing most scenes to go on just a few beats too long, adding to the clumsy feel of the entire endeavor.
But "Austenland"'s biggest problem is that it's just not funny. What could have been a hilarious and smart parody of Romance (with a capital "R") and the role fantasy plays in our love lives is instead rendered utterly forgettable.