Austenland is the sort of film one could argue makes a secret success out of its incessant failures. Perhaps the nondescript Darcy ragdolls and Colin Firth cut-outs that adorn the home of Jane Austen fan girl Jane (Keri Russell) are a testament to the limited memorabilia options available to traditionally female cultural objects compared to something like Star Wars. Perhaps Jane’s lack of effusive displays over the actual content of Austen’s oeuvre relative to her fondness for vaguely era-appropriate bric-à-brac speaks to the myopic manner in which fans cherish all the wrong things.
And maybe the fact that Austenland itself has so little to do with Austen – instead an excuse for a handful of undersexed bougies to put on nice clothes and enjoy a simulated romance with a debonair gentleman of times long past – comments on the dwindling of literature’s relevance. These manufactured romances contain none of the social satire embedded in Austen’s own novels, with director and co-writer Jerusha Hess (Napoleon Dynamite) instead mounting nothing more than a cynical, nasty attack on the women who would attend a vacation nominally centered on Austen.
The thinness of the setup clashes with the tyrannical strictness of the retreat’s matriarch, Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour), who threatens to expel guests without refund for so much as having a cellphone in their room. More disturbing are the convoluted, violating lengths to which the woman goes to research her clients in order to make the most suitable match among her archetypal romantic performers. One of those actors, a miserabilist Darcy type named Henry Nobley (JJ Felid), is the only sustained, direct tie to Austen, albeit it in such a half-assed manner one wonders why the obsessive Jane never rants against what a false bill of goods she’s been sold instead of just harping on being unlucky in love. Jane regularly laments she cannot tell the reality of her surroundings from the fabrications, but the illusion of Austenland is so transparent one is left to question her mental faculties.
Austen’s general absence from the proceedings extends to the humor, which exchanges the writer’s pointed but good-natured jibes for a mean-spirited streak that debases its characters, be it sketching Jane’s fandom in such reductive strokes or, especially, in its treatment of Jennifer Coolidge’s airheaded Austenland guest. Coolidge, one of the best and most fearless comic performers in American film, once again finds herself in a role that makes a punchline of the very notion that a woman older than 30 who doesn’t fit into a size zero dress should even think about, much less have, sex. Lord knows Coolidge is, as ever, game, committed even to the excruciating recurring bit her character adopting a gaudy Cockney accent, and to see her so casually debased is an outrage. Equally wasted is James Callis, whose wild-eyed fear at Coolidge’s pushy advances nearly redeems her simplistic behavior until his character collapses into a thinly veiled gay joke.
That Austenland should find such titillation in sexuality is the worst betrayal of whatever aspirations it had to draw upon Austen’s name. The author’s romances belie a complex, masterfully camouflaged critique of contemporary society’s roles for women and the manner in which her protagonists can play the game while bending the rules to allow for some modicum of self-expression. Austenland’s women are but empty shells, desperate for a man and willing to make fools of themselves and spend their entire savings to get one. To expect a film to match the content and style of one of the greatest, most precise prose writers of the English language is a tall order. To want one of the preeminent female writers of all time not have her name associated with outright misogyny should not be so much to ask.