Sundance Journal: ‘Austenland’

The Hess sense of humor has always eluded me. I still can’t understand what people see in ‘Napoleon Dynamite‘ or ‘Nacho Libre’. ‘Austenland’, however, is the Hesses most commercial film. It’s also their best, although that’s not saying much.

I wasn’t planning to see this movie before the Sundance festival. I don’t find the Hess quirky-for-quirk’s-sake type of humor appealing. Nevertheless, I write for a newspaper in Utah. Jared and Jerusha Hess are big in Utah, so I had to cover it.

This time around, it’s wife Jerusha behind the camera. She’s also written the screenplay, which is based on a novel by Shannon Hale. The story is about Jane (Keri Russell), a woman completely obsessed with the works of Jane Austen – so much so that she’s willing to spend her life’s savings on a trip to a manor in the English countryside that specializes in giving lonely women a one-of-a-kind Jane Austen experience.

The resort is run by Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour). Seymour is funny in the role of an ostentatious estate owner who takes pride in providing an authentic experience. She has so much pride, in fact, that if you’re caught with a cell phone or any other modern contraption, you get booted out without a refund.

Women who buy the experience are guaranteed to find romance with one of the Mr. Darcy-type characters that are provided. Jane mistakenly purchases the Copper package, which affords her drab dresses and a room in the servant’s wing of the house. Miss Elizabeth Charming (Jennifer Coolidge) is an overly excited rich woman who has purchased the Platinum package. She gets the fancy dresses and a suite.

Coolidge doesn’t so much steal the show, as she simply rips it out from under everyone. She’s so over-the-top that it soon becomes grating to watch her eat up scenery. Quietly reserved Russell has a hard time getting noticed because Coolidge is being so Coolidge-y. She needs to bring it down a notch, or five.

Martin (Bret McKenzie) is a farmhand at the manor who isn’t supposed to interact with the guests, so invariably he’s the one that Jane falls for.

‘Austenland’ is certainly the most commercially appealing movie the Hess family has made. It will no doubt play well with undiscerning female crowds, or those who enjoy watching Jennifer Coolidge act like a complete dope for an hour and a half.

The effect of ‘Austenland’ was only so-so for me. I laughed a few times, but found myself too annoyed by Coolidge. Russell is cute and believable, but the rest of the movie feels like dreadfully standard rom-com fare.

Rating: ★★½☆☆

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