Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Let's Review Something: Austenland

I have to admit, I’m not a Jane Austen aficionado or anything, but I enjoy her stories.  Not all of them, and there is a moment when they all start to blend into one another and I can’t tell them apart, but in the hands of a strong directorial voice, they can become something special.  That being said, I know some people who are obsessed with her.  In fact, I know more than some.  I know a couple that has a room in their home dedicated to her work, with paintings of her on the wall, all her books on the shelf (multiple versions and editions, hard and soft, mint condition and tattered) as well as costumes on dress hangers in the corner of the room.  They also attend those Jane Austen festivals every year (I can’t remember the name of them) in full garb, and despite being as American as they come, they try their hardest to pull off an English accent while in character.

I’ll never get it, but then again, I secretly envy their fearless desire for fun.

‘Austenland’ kind of pokes fun at people like them, exposing their cluttered obsessions and then trying to berate their need for a true fantasy romance, and yet at the other end it kind of panders to them as well, providing a happy ending we all saw coming (sort of) and making the obsession kind of rewarding.

When my wife and I saw the preview for this months ago while waiting for ‘Blue Jasmine’ to start we both knew that we would see it.  I mean, my wife is kind of in love with Jane Seymour, and we both agree that Jennifer Coolidge should be in every comedy.  Besides, the outlandish nature of the subject just seemed ripe for comedy.  Look at ‘Best in Show’.  Making fun of human obsessions can really pay off in the end.

This is no ‘Best in Show’.

I kind of knew that going in, but a boy can dream.  That isn’t to say that ‘Austenland’ doesn’t have some sort of payoff, and it did make me laugh, but the end result isn’t as satisfying as I would have wished for.  Instead of taking the risk of actually playing out like a straight up parody of the Austen world, ‘Austenland’ suffers from turning itself into a modern-day adaptation of her work, and is so concerned with appearing clever in that shift that it winds up deflating its sails a bit and coming across kind of flat.

The film tells the story of Jane Hayes, a desperate woman approaching the end of her child bearing years that is still single and searching for her Mr. Darcy.  The reason she is still single is because her bedroom is a shrine to Jane Austen and she’s kind of a freak (more on that in a minute).  So, at the peak of her desperation, she decides to blow her life savings on a trip to Austenland, a place that promises a true Austen experience complete with a fairytale romance and ‘engagement’ at the end.  Upon arriving, her dreams are crushed by the snobbish Mrs. Wattlesbrook, the owner of Austenland.  She is obviously disgusted with Jane’s lack of funds (Jane purchased the Copper Package, not the Platinum Package) and because of this she is treated like dirt.  She almost instantly sees the ridiculousness of her personal dreams, finding the antics unfulfilling and seeking solace in her doodling and the arms of the help, Martin, who seems to find the whole thing pretty dumb as well.

But then there is the illusive Mr. Henry Nobley, Jane’s dream man and the essential ‘Mr. Darcy’ of the establishment.  He’s handsome, reserved, snarky and strangely charming and he seems to strike up real chemistry with Jane.

But is any of it real?

The knock to reality television and delusional obsessions is obvious, and yet it is never explored deeply enough to be a good character study.  Sadly, the film doesn’t do anything well enough to be anything more than confused.  It isn’t romantic enough to be a Jane Austen adaptation and it isn’t funny enough to be a remarkable comedy or parody.  Instead, it does all things moderately well and becomes an uneven film that could have been something more but settled for being acceptably mediocre.  The supporting cast is pretty great though, with Coolidge, Seymour and Georgia King delivering some hilarious portraits of women caught up in the act.  Coolidge plays the same character in every film, but she does it so well!  King’s whole ‘come hither’ scene is the best in the film, and that ridiculous outdoor play is a true highlight.  Still, I can’t help but feel that the film’s resolve is a tad obvious in retrospect, and the film’s inability to decide what it wants to be makes it feel underwhelming. 

And I have a serious issue with the normality of Jane Hayes.  She’s far too normal to be portrayed as that obsessive.  It doesn’t make sense.  It isn’t believable at all.  Her room is utterly ridiculous and all the Austen paraphernalia doesn’t jive with who she is, which is nothing more than a shy bookworm.  It was obvious that the screenwriter, Jerusha Hess, was unsure of how far she wanted to go with this.

For me, she didn’t go far enough.

I give this a C.  It isn't offensive in the least, or straight up bad, but it really isn't much of anything in the end.  I wanted something great from this (the premise screamed hilarity) and yet it just fumbles so much for me.


  1. Hi Andrew! Thanks for the great review, glad you find something to appreciate here. I loved it despite its imperfections that you pointed out, the humor at times were all over the place. At the same time, it was so much fun and on second viewing I was still laughing as hard as I did the first time around. LOVE the supporting cast ... "Coolidge plays the same character in every film, but she does it so well!" Soo true!! She's so over the top here but it works because well, it's trademark Coolidge, you either love or hate her and I happen to think she's awesome.

    I also like the *twist* about Jane's suitor, yes it's cheesy but it kinda work. JJ Feild is appropriately dreamy whilst Bret McKenzie was goofy in a charming kind of way, inspired casting w/ those two I think.

    – ruth

    1. I actually found the twist nice, even if it did kind of play into the Austen adaptation aspect of the film. I actually said part way through "how are they going to pick a guy for her?" and I liked what they did.

      And Coolidge is just amazing.

  2. I just watched it a few days ago, and I have the same issues with the film. Still, it was light and harmless fun. I'd go with a weak B-.