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Film Critic for Twin Cities Live

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Friday, September 6, 2013

Movie Review: AUSTENLAND

Director: Jerusha Hess
Starring: Keri Russell, JJ Feild, Jennifer Coolidge, Jane Seymour, Bret McKenzie, Georgia King

Whenever I hear people talk about Jane Austen, there is always a die-hard fan among the group that knows everything Austen. They have their favorite Mr. Darcy, they can dissect each book, and they know the ins and outs of what makes a faithful film adaptation. Even during our honeymoon in Paris, we met an Austen-aholic on one of our tours. She was a little intense and did not stop talking about all things Austen. Writer/Director Jerusha Hess (Napoleon Dynamite) introduces us to someone obsessed with Ms. Jane Austen. Luckily for us, she is not as annoying as the gal we met in Paris. Jane Hayes (Russell) has had passages from “Pride and Prejudice” memorized since she was young. Her apartment is covered in all things Austen related. A life-size cardboard cut-out of Colin Firth stands at attention near her doorway. She has been unlucky in love and hears about a Jane Austen theme park. Could she meet her Mr. Darcy at this joyland?

She decides to blow her life savings for the trip and heads to London for this once in a lifetime opportunity. Upon arriving she meets the spunky and flighty Miss Elizabeth Charming (Coolidge) who is the opposite of her. Miss Charming knows nothing about Jane Austen or any of her works. Jane arrives in costume and after meeting Miss Charming is a little confused about what she got herself into. Miss Charming has already been given a new Austen-inspired name. Upon arrival at Austenland, more bad luck befalls Jane when she is informed by head mistress Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Seymour) that she gets a frumpy name, small room, and no accompanying suitor. You do not receive any of those luxuries when you buy the basic package. Miss Charming, on the other hand, bought the platinum package that comes with all of the bells and whistles. Austenland is full of actors posing as suitors, maids, and butlers to give off the authentic Austen feel to put you right inside of one her stories.

Jane remains positive and makes the most out of her time there regardless of what the basic package has to offer. Even though she is not assigned a “Mr. Darcy”, the sparks start to ignite between her and Martin (McKenzie), the stable boy who is in charge of the horses and other animals. Martin is not the only one who seems to have an eye on our fair Jane. Mr. Henry Nobley (Feild) keeps one eye on Jane despite having been assigned to the energetic Lady Amelia Heartwright (King). These hidden glances are all done while brooding in the corner, of course.

I feel like every year there is some new movie devoted to Austen's work. Whether they are movies inspired by her work, faithful adaptations of her books, or movies devoted to book clubs reading her books, there is something new Austen fans can latch onto to get their fix. Within the next couple of years we will even see the adaptation of "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" make its way to the big screen. You can add Austenland to that ever growing list. The movie should really be called Pride and Prejudice Land as the movie and Jane seem very focused on that novel. If I remember correctly, there was no mention of "Emma", "Sense and Sensibility", or "Northanger Abbey". One would think that a film about a die-hard Jane Austen fan would at least reference more of her literary cannon. Even if you are an Austen novice you will be able to follow along and understand everything that happens in the movie. I am by no means an expert and I had no trouble comprehending the period, language, and Austen references. I guess there is something commendable about how the film can appeal to a greater audience base than the Janes of the world. However, the simplicity of the script and story left me wanting far more when there is so much material there to work from. The film seems a bit choppy at times. Either there are editing and transition problems, jokes that don't deliver well, or a little of both. The script has another logistical problem. If you've noticed, there seems to be only three customers that are visiting Austenland. I found it strange that there were numerous workers at this theme park yet only three customers.

What makes the movie enjoyable is the cast. We have another example where the movie would have been another dumb romantic comedy, but the cast infuses enough charm and comedic timing to keep you engaged without too many eye rolls along the way. It is such a relief to see Jennifer Coolidge back on the big screen. She has been sticking to TV lately, but I will always remember her as Stifler's mom in the American Pie movies, as Paulette in Legally Blonde, and from her hilarious roles in the Christopher Guest mockumentaries. The role of Miss Charming seems tailor made for her style and sense of comedic timing. Georgia King (TV's gone-too-soon "The New Normal") is just as funny as Ms. Coolidge in her role as the other customer at Austenland. Feild definitely has the charming, debonair, Darcy qualities about him. Cheers for that casting decision! Russell, Feild, and McKenzie are all cute and endearing but Coolidge and King really steal the movie away from them. Maybe I am just drawn to the funny supporting players over the romantic leads. Austenland is silly and over-the-top and knows it. It does not try to be anything but that. Jerusha Hess plays to the strengths of her cast which keeps it light and fun. Yes, it could have been way better but it also could have been way worse. There are enough laughs along the way to keep the audience entertained whether they are Austen enthusiasts or not.

RATING: *** (3 out of 5 stars)

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