Sundance Review: 'Austenland' Isn't Worth a Visit

Jane Austen wrote that "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." By giving us a weak heroine and a frothy, insubstantial film, "Austenland" appears to put forth that it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman in possession of a Jane Austen obsession is probably a bit of a bland nutter who isn't even the star of her own life story.

Jane (Keri Russell) has been obsessed with Jane Austen all her life, watching the A&E version of "Pride and Prejudice" endlessly, decorating her room in all the paraphernalia she can lay hands on, even owning a cardboard cutout of Mr. Darcy. She decides to take a leap of faith and visit Austenland, a fully immersive Jane Austen experience wherein one can live out their very own regency romance. Along for the adventure is Elizabeth Charming (Jennifer Coolidge), who has paid for a fancier package and therefore much better experience, while poor Jane must experience the world of Jane Austen in plainer clothes and smaller quarters. Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour) hosts the experience, and she's accompanied by Martin the stable boy (Bret McKenzie) and the mysteriously sullen Mr. Nobley (JJ Feild).

The plot is uneven at best, and it comes across as mocking those obsessed with Jane Austen rather than celebrating them. "Austenland" paints the desire to live in the world of the famous author as somewhat pathetic and deranged. By the end of Jane's stay, we know little to nothing about who she really is, and even less about why we should care. The film varies slightly from the book, and in doing so, unwittingly robs the main character of much of her personality and power, leaving us instead with little insight into her dreams and desires outside of her constantly articulated obsession with Mr. Darcy. Her vacillation between two potential romantic partners is as uninteresting as the jokes, a bold move in a chick flick that purports to be a romantic comedy.

The performances across the board are one note and uneven, with Russell turning in one of her weakest and most self-consciously mannered performances without infusing her character with very much likability. Coolidge is saddled with most of the obvious jokes and comedy, and her larger-than-life onscreen persona grows stale quickly. Seymour is similarly stunted by her limited role, and the menfolk fare no better, though JJ Feild does better than most. Where there could have been depth and charm, we're left with a sickly veneer of oddball humor punctuated by moments of sheer ridiculousness.

While the film is fun to watch at times, first-time director Jerusha Hess has brought too much of the outlandish sensibilities of her earlier screenplays (such as "Napoleon Dynamite" and "Gentleman Broncos") to bear in what should have been a tight, well-scripted romantic comedy. As a result, "Austenland" is as light and airy as a cream puff, and as entirely unfulfilling. Fans of the book may find it amusing, but those looking for heartier romantic comedy fare would do well to look elsewhere.

Grade: C+