Jane Hayes (Keri Russell), the winsomely deluded heroine of Austenland, is a contemporary New Yorker who has spent her entire adult life escaping into fantasy, dreaming and wishing — oh, does she wish! — that she could be a Jane Austen heroine. She knows Austen’s novels by heart, and she longs to wear those frilly dresses and sit around those drawing rooms, to sip tea and engage in elegant English banter. She’s like an American Bridget Jones, pining for her Mr. Darcy — except that Jane is almost dementedly literal about it. She really wishes she could go back in time and meet Mr. Darcy. Depending on your point of view, Jane, as a character, is either an insulting vision of single-women-as-basket-cases or a flaky satire of contemporary feminine obsession. I’d say she’s a bit of both: The satire is a bit patronizing, yet Keri Russell plays Jane’s scatterbrained romanticism with such underhanded charm that she goes a long way toward making the laughs seem pertly knowing, even when they come at Jane’s expense.
Taking literary fixation to its logical conclusion, Jane decides to spend most of what’s in her bank account on a trip to Austenland, a kind of experiential theme park in the British countryside, where life as a Jane Austen fantasy of landed gentry becomes ”reality.” The participants stay in the rooms of a splendid old stone mansion, dress in empire-waist frocks, and are forbidden to bring along any technological device that wouldn’t have been available in the 19th century. Once there, they saunter around engaging in saucy refined chitchat with various servants and suitors, who are actually actors hired to flirt with the women and maybe more (which is not only very un-Austen-like but also condescending, given that the women are basically paying to have affairs with gigolos in cravats). Based on a novel by Shannon Hale, Austenland was produced by Stephenie Meyer, and it was co-written (with Hale) and directed by Jerusha Hess, who is one half of the husband-wife team that made Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre, and Gentlemen Broncos. There’s a bit of that same affection for wacked losers in the tone that Hess strikes here. Austenland itself comes off as an absurd institution with just enough reality that we can actually believe such a place exists. The other woman who joins Jane is an intermittently funny foil: Jennifer Coolidge as a spectacular vulgarian who looks even trashier when she tries to blend in with her surroundings. And Georgia King, as an actress hired to play an upper-crust snob, complete with breathy vowels, comes off as even more Austen-moonstruck than Jane.
Austenland is kind of a one-joke movie, and the film’s rhythm is a bit flaccid, but the joke, at least, has a twinge of wit. Jane is torn between responding to the advances of an amorous groundskeeper (Bret McKenzie) and holding out for Mr. Henry Nobley (JJ Field), who may be an effete snake or may, in fact, be a true contempo ”Darcy” in actor’s clothing. This glorified romcom choice has very little weight. Maybe that’s because the only question in Austenland with a trace of comic friction is whether Jane can ever exit her cocoon of petticoat escapism and join the real world. B-