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Austenland: Sundance Review

Overexposed material is fresh and fun in Austenland, an unlikely take on Jane Austen lore that sends Keri Russell to a sort of Regency Westworld, acting out romantic fantasies with fellow vacationing Brit-lit addicts. Funny, reasonably romantic and wholly commercial, Jerusha Hess’s debut should hold fans over until someone musters the nerve to do another straight-on remake of Pride and Prejudice.

Russell plays Jane Hayes, a socially awkward Austenmaniac whose sad little spinster pad is stuffed with teapots and tokens of love for Mr. Darcy. She sells her car to travel to Austenland, an English theme resort whose stuffy doyenne (Jane Seymour) promises every visitor a Persuasion-worthy romance with an actor on staff.

Some of those actors play their parts more convincingly than others — which is only fair, since some guests fall far short of PhD-level fandom: A wealthy American (Jennifer Coolidge) has never even read the books; she’s just here because she thinks she’d look great in “those wench dresses.” Producers get their money’s worth from Coolidge, who for the first half hour can’t open her mouth without bringing down the house. When she bellows “right-o” in a desperate attempt at an English accent, the final vowel becomes multiple syllables, something the word “diphthong” hardly begins to describe. (Not that the actress has to speak to steal a scene, as evinced in a hilarious needlepoint gag.)

Once the rubble from Coolidge’s entry has settled, the film gets to the point: Hayes, who could only afford the Copper (as opposed to Platinum) vacation package, appears to be getting a raw deal. She’s clothed in frumpy dresses and housed in the servants’ wing, and while three women are visiting Austenland this week, the drawing room is equipped with only two male actors: foppish Colonel Andrews (James Callis), all extravagant chivalry, and dead-on Darcy stand-in Henry Nobley (JJ Feild), who plays the sourpuss so well we suspect he isn’t acting.

Discouraged, Jane begins sneaking out of the simulacrum, flirting with Kiwi crewmember Martin (Bret McKenzie) and beginning a promising do-it-yourself affair — until the third proper actor appears (roguish, ripped Ricky Whittle) and Martin decides she’s just another ninny who’d rather pay for fantasy love than make the real thing. Quite naturally, the dynamics of over-proud bickering and thwarted attraction begin to fall into a bona-fide Jane Austen mold.

Moving into the director’s chair after co-scripting Napoleon Dynamite and its two follow-ups with husband Jared, Jerusha Hess leaves most of the ostentatious quirks behind. (The theme park’s strange menagerie of taxidermied animals is the strongest echo of those weird films.) And with just the right notes from Russell — whose Jane may hear a biological clock ticking, but isn’t as desperate as she initially seems — Hess gets her romance just grounded enough to handle the comic extremes supplied by the supporting cast. Even the film’s weakest ingredient, the new and poorly used vintage pop songs on the soundtrack, is overshadowed by an unexpected and delightful musical romp played during the final credits.