Is there anyone out there who doesn't love Keri Russell? People have loved her right from the beginning, gripping audiences so completely on TV as Felicity that her hair was a subject of national discussion. She's a real treat, and has mostly avoided the romantic comedy genre despite looking like the prototype actress for it. But it also makes her the perfect choice for a wry, satirical send-up of Jane Austen's dramatized period romances, and while Austenland has its precocious charms, the execution leaves much to be desired.
Director Jerusha Hess, co-writer of Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre, and Gentleman Broncos, adapts Shannon Hale's novel and squanders what is an intriguing premise full of comic potential. Russell plays Austen-era fanatic Jane Hayes, yes even her name is Austenian, who has spent her life obsessed with the Regency Era. So much so that she compares every man she meets to Mr. Darcy, in particular Colin Firth's version from the BBC miniseries Pride & Prejudice. So many cardboard cut outs and posters of Firth are plastered all over her cramped apartment that he should probably get an acting credit. Modern men simply don't hold up to the Mr. Darcy of her dreams, and since Match.com probably isn't full of guys listing "looking for my own Elizabeth Bennett" on their bio, Jane blows her life savings on a week-long European vacation in Austenland, where the world of Pride & Prejudice is recreated in authentic fashion.
Austenland is basically like Comic-Con for the Jane Austen obsessed, where all of the guests Cosplay as heroines who could have been ripped straight from one of the author's novels, and are promised a guaranteed romance with the hunky dude of their choice. In Jane's case she gets two guys vying for her attention in a low-wattage love triangle: the stiff and stern Henry Nobley (J.J. Feild) and the earnest stable boy/jack-of-all-trades Martin (Bret McKenzie). While figuring out if her suitors are acting or are genuinely in love with her, Jane must also contend with Austenland's dismissive proprietor (Jane Seymour) whose favor is only aimed at the wealthier clients. Meanwhile, the other side of the Austen coin is embodies by crass American sexpot Elizabeth Charming (Jennifer Coolidge), who knows nothing of the era but goes there because it's a great way to hook up with guys.
While much of the humor is heavy-handed and not especially clever, Russell and Feild make the most of the situation with two magnetic performances. Feild's Darcy-esque enigmatic aura goes well with Russell's pluckiness, and she continues to have a keen sense of comic timing that we haven't seen her employ since the vastly underrated Waitress. She's also an extraordinarily smart actress, making Jane a believable human being and not just some freak to be mocked. Hess has spent her career making fun of specific groups of people in her films, but it's clear she has affection for the time period and the people who adore it. Perhaps she got a few pointers from producer Stephenie Meyer, the Twilight author whose books have created legions of crazed fans. Ironically, Meyer and Austen have both risen the romantic expectations of millions of women to a ridiculous degree, and it would have been nice to see the film explore the subject a bit deeper, but that's not what this movie intends to be. Those who have love for Austen, like those with The Jane Austen Book Club sitting on their DVD shelf, will probably enjoy this film the most. But those who are less familiar will look at Austenland for what it is, a light romantic trifle that could make for good date night material.