This sendup of British costume dramas visiting a Regency-era theme park, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, is a pleasant romp that works, writes Marlow Stern.
With the runaway success of the British TV drama Downton Abbey, audiences have developed a ravenous appetite for stately period costume dramas.
Jerusha Hess’s Austenland,making its premiere at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, isn’t that kind of movie—rather, it’s a randy send-up of period fare and its overly devoted acolytes.
Jane (The Americans’ Keri Russell) is a 31-year-old woman stuck in a thankless job who just can’t seem to find the right guy. The reason why, however, is because she is dangerously obsessed with all things Jane Austen—from her pink, Regency-era bedroom right down to a creepy, life-sized, cardboard stand-up of Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy situated by her apartment door.
In order to satisfy her Jane Austin itch—and potentially find her own Mr. Darcy—Jane spends her life savings on an all-expenses-paid journey to Austenland, an adult theme park where, for a very hefty sum, female Austen fanatics live out their wildest fantasies in a 19th century British manor filled with dashing, chivalrous, dapper young men. Joining Jane on her quest is Elizabeth (Jennifer Coolidge), a busty, airheaded woman who she meets at Heathrow that’s in it because, well, she wants to get laid in a corset. The entire Austenland operation, meanwhile, is lorded over by the rigid Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour), who treats Jane like a second-class citizen since she only shelled out for “the bronze package.”
Despite an immediate attraction to Mr. Henry Nobley (JJ Feild), a mysteriously guarded fellow in the Darcy mold, Jane soon falls for Martin (Flight of the Conchords’ Bret McKenzie), an endearing goofball who, when he’s not belting out female power ballads in his shack, serves as Austenland’s stable boy and all-around Boy Friday.
Jerusha Hess, longtime screenwriter for her brother, Jared Hess, directs Austenland. The two have collaborated on the screenplays for all of Jared’s films, from Napoleon Dynamite on. Unlike Jared’s very deadpan oeuvre, this is a broad, commercial comedy bursting at the seams with fish-out-of-water jokes—mostly courtesy of the hilarious Coolidge. With her sizable bosoms about to explode out of her corset, Coolidge’s crude, rude, and lascivious behavior would seem outré in 2013, let alone the Regency era and, whether she’s sewing her glove into her patchwork or sexually harassing her prey — who just so happens to be the gayest gentleman in the house — Coolidge steals every scene she’s in.
But the film is still anchored beautifully by Russell who, as she exhibited in Waitress, and for years on Felicity, is an actor that inspires such a tremendous degree of goodwill, you can’t help but root for her. Yes, Hess’ film has its faults. Plenty of the jokes don’t land and the middle of the film, as Jane is torn between Martin and Nobley, drags a bit. But I reckon there will be plenty of women, and a few men, too, who will have a gay ol’ time in Austenland.