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Sundance 2013 Movie Review: Austenland

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When it comes to quirky filmmaking, no one does it better than Wes Anderson. But that doesn’t seem to stop Jared and Jerusha Hess from trying. Try as they might, they’ve given us plenty of laughs along the way with Jared typically in the director’s chair. From their huge splash at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival with Napoleon Dynamite, through their Hollywood debut Nacho Libre, to their last minor (but still hilarious) outing, Gentlemen Broncos, they may have only made three films prior to this year’s festival offering, Austenland, but they stayed true to their unique vision. With Austenland, Jerusha adapted the novel by Shannon Hale (who co-writes), and seems to have bigger fish to fry — namely, girls of the rom-com persuasion.

Jane (Keri Russell) works day to day at a job she hates where she’s harassed by an unrequited horndog, and keeps a low profile on the dating scene thanks to her obsession with all things Jane Austen. One day she finally decides she’s had enough and takes off on a vacation to Austenland, a Jane Austen-themed resort, against her best friend’s wishes. Here she’s greeted by the owner of Austenland, the chastising Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour), after meeting fellow vacationer Elizabeth (Jennifer Coolidge) at the airport.

Everyone who visits Austenland is given a Jane Austen-style backstory. Seeing how Jane opted for the cheaper vacation plans, she is relegated to being an orphan of misfortune and sent off to the servants’ wing while Elizabeth is deemed Miss Charming. Part of the package includes a courtship with their very own Mister Darcy. These come in the forms of the scowly, downtalking Mr. Henry Nobley (JJ Field), the possibly gay Colonel Andrews (James Callis), and the swashbuckling Captain George East (Ricky Whittle). Everything winds up playing tried and true to Pride and Prejudice with Jane eventually having to decide between Henry and Martin (Bret McKenzie), who oversees the lands.

If you think you know how this will end, you’re right. There’s no real surprises here, except for how abruptly Jane makes her final decision. The main problem is that she may wind up with who she really should, but Russell has absolutely no chemistry with him. The one she does click with is who we’re expected to root against which shows how much charisma McKenzie has. While on Flight of the Conchords he may have played a far more insecure character, here he steals the whole movie no matter how much Coolidge tries. Director Hess has absolutely no idea how to reign her in and just lets her do her thing. Coolidge plays the ugly American with complete glee, spouting phrases like, “Tallyho,” “God save the Queen,” “The British are coming, the British are coming,” and even makes her introduction at the airport thanking Jane for being American because she “can’t understand what the natives are saying.”

There’s lots of buzz surrounding Austenland and the women in the audience sure seemed to be eating it up. I even overheard a couple while waiting in line for something else at a public screening in Salt Lake who described it as “awesome.” Not quite. While it’s not the best rom-com you’re likely to see anytime soon, it’s certainly not something any guy will hate himself for getting dragged to.

In the end, it does exactly what it sets out to do, which is to give the girls some trials and tribulations of unlucky-in-love Jane while setting their hearts aflutter with the unsurprising outcome. There’s only one scene where Jerusha gets down to her quirky business, and it’s the funniest scene in the whole movie. Let’s just say it involves the enactment of a horrible play written by Wattlesbrook. So go ahead and see it when it’s released, at least you won’t hate yourself the next morning.

Photos courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

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About Cinenerd

A Utah based writer, born and raised in Salt Lake City, UT for better and worse. Cinenerd has had an obsession with film his entire life, finally able to write about them since 2009, and the only thing he loves more are his wife and their two wiener dogs (Beatrix Kiddo and Pixar Animation). He is accredited with the Sundance Film Festival.