Despite being an author of 19th century novels of manners, Jane Austen can inspire a fanatical following worthy of the likes of George Lucas or Gene Roddenberry. Austen fans tirelessly immerse themselves in her Regency-era tales of romance prevailing over social morays, and Hollywood follows suit. The past two decades have seen not only such versions as the 1995 "Pride and Prejudice" miniseries that turned Colin Firth into a sex symbol, but the loose biopic Becoming Jane and such contemporary semi-adaptations as Bridget Jones's Diary.
When so many fans and filmmakers have Jane on the brain, the comedy Austenland should arrive as a timely commentary on part of the modern zeitgeist. Instead, Austenland wastes a promising premise and falls thuddingly short of its intentions, which proves especially unfortunate given how few female-oriented films see release.
"Felicity's" Keri Russell plays Jane Hayes, a single woman in her 30s who obsesses over Austen and the Regency period. Not only has she filled her apartment with teacups, doilies, and other 19th-century knickknacks, she has a standee of Firth's Mr. Darcy where a male fanboy would have a life-size Han Solo in carbonite. Jane learns from a travel agent — they still have those? — about an English estate that offers a role-playing experience that's the next best thing to being in an Austen book.
Jane arrives at Heathrow Airport in an empire-waist gown like a dedicated cosplayer. The film reveals its best concept when Jane reaches the estate and discovers that she spent her savings on the lowest-level "Copper" vacation package. While a rich American ignoramus (Jennifer Coolidge) gets luxurious accommodations and the pseudonym "Miss Charming," Jane bunks in a servant's room under the name "Miss Erstwhile." She finds herself living the unglamorous existence of Austen's unsung supporting characters.
Russell has revived her career with her powerful work as a 1980s KGB sleeper agent on "The Americans," but seems at sea in Austenland. Jane's relationship to Austen's fiction changes over the course of the story, but Austenland conveys no sense — or sensibility, for that matter — of the character's psychology. She ultimately comes across as a Jane Austen poser, less interesting than a story about a disillusioned true believer.
Austenland was directed and co-written by Jerusha Hess, best known as writing partner (and spouse) of Jared Hess, director of Napoleon Dynamite. Like their other films, Austenland presents a maladjusted outsider in a peculiar subculture, but Jerusha Hess conveys no sense of tone or how to land a joke. Austenland ultimately seems like a distaff counterpart to nerd-culture films like Fanboys or Paul, which are also pretty terrible. This is equality?