'Austenland' is no e-ticket theme ride
“Austenland” is a clumsy comedy built on the shaky ground that separates broad, low spoof from straight romance. Lumbering along, miscast and ugly to look at, it's a faintly promising idea utterly botched by Jerusha Hess, the less talented co-writer/director wife of Jared (“Napoleon Dynamite”) Hess.
Keri Russell is the least charming and least convincing she's ever been as plain Jane Hayes, who grew up enthralled by the novels of Jane Austen, stuck in bad relationships that have no prayer of measuring up to the epic love affairs of “Pride and Prejudice” or “Sense and Sensibility.”
But if she's willing to spend all her savings on a “life-changing” experience, there's this new British theme park — an immersive Jane Austen experience, full of bustles, Empire waistlines, gala balls and romance, Regency (early 19th-century) style.
Austenland is run by the prim and profit-oriented Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour). Plucky Jane Hayes is plucked from the airport and delivered to the British countryside of Austen legend — a manor house filled with sometimes-shirtless stable boys and always-proper gentlemen fops and the dizzy ladies who love them. Jane gets to role-play, to endure insults and courtly entreaties offered by Austenland's version of Mr. Darcy, Mr. Nobley (JJ Feild).
The bawdy “American Pie” mom Jennifer Coolidge shows up as rich ditz. They wear the corsets, eat the meals and enjoy the entertainments available to Austen-era folk — games of whist, taking turns at the pianoforte, and conversation. They must “eschew all things modern,” so, no cellphones.
Jane, on the budget-based “Copper” level ticket, is wooed by the stubbly, swarthy servant Martin (Bret McKenzie) and offended by the prissy snob Mr. Nobley. Col. Andrews (James Callis) is a fop's fop, all mustache twirls and plummy, clueless observations about whatever enters that empty head of his. Georgia King almost steals the show as the adorably hammy “actress” house guest Lady Amelia Heartwright.
Though “Austenland” finally gets on its feet at around the one-hour mark, making the tricky romantic triangle play out because “romances have blossomed on stonier ground,” as one character observes — and even as it finds laughs in a third-act “theatrical” that the guests and employees stage — that is too late to pull this chestnut's chestnuts out of the fire.
Roger Moore is a film critic for McClatchy-Tribune News Service.