Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Austenland (2013)

If Austenland is the result of Stephenie Meyer's producing a film, then maybe we all need to agree to take her keys away and not let her around movies anymore.  She can have them back when she's sobered up.

I didn't think Austenland is bad enough to land in my top ten worst of the year, but it's pretty telling when the group of girls behind me exclaim that this was the worst movie they've seen.  This is coming from people in the movie's target audience.

While, Austenland it has its moments, much of this film felt like bad local theater, which is even more of a surprise considering the cast.  These aren't scrubs or a bunch of no names, but there's a surprising amount of overacting and mugging for the camera.  The labored jokes and bad slapstick were something that reminded me of a stretched out SNL skit.  You know, the really bad ones that are usually on after Weekend Update.

Jane's (Keri Russell) growing obsession with Jane Austen and Mr. Darcy has caused her to be a single thirty-something.  Seeing her lose a boyfriend over this reminded me of one the points Don Jon made about porn and romantic comedies.  When you have this idealized fantasy of how a relationship should be, reality is never going to live up to that.

After getting sexually harassed at work, she abruptly decides to spend her life savings to go to Austenland, a Jane Austen-themed resort.  Her only friend advises her this is a bad idea, which was the only realistic part of the movie.  Nobody seems surprised or shocked that Austenland even exists.  You'd think they'd make a point to remark how odd the very idea was, but we're all just supposed to go along with it without much setup.  Even getting Jane to Austenland was rushed without much in the way of character development.  It's not that Jane is unlikeable, but you don't know enough about her to be invested in her journey.

Once arriving at Austenland, she learns that spending her life savings only got her the "bronze package", which basically means that the lady that runs the place, Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour), gets to treat her like a second class citizen.  It would have been interesting if the film had done more with the class theme, but they didn't.  Everyone in the resort is in character and guests are given fake names.  They are also paired up with an actor with the intent of giving them a romantic story, but know that it's not real.  Why pay all this money for a romantic experience that isn't real?  This is taking the fantasy to an unhealthy level.  Anyway, Jane bonds with "Elizabeth Charming" (Jennifer Coolidge), who seems to have more wealth than brains.  I like Jennifer Coolidge, and I thought she was funny for the most part, but she's basically doing yet another ditzy variation of the character she usually plays when she's not Stifler's Mom.

Austenland jumps from scene to scene without any real flow.  It's very choppy, with scenes ending abruptly or jokes landing with a thud before moving on.  The worst example of this involves Jane attempting to play a few bars from Nelly's "Hot in Herre".  Worse yet, the end credits feature the cast lip-syncing to the song.  This kind of stuff is cheesy in the best of films, and the only way you can generally get away with it is if you've earned it by being consistently funny.  Here it just felt lame and indulgent.  The humorous moments in Austenland were so few and far between that I can only conclude they were funny by accident.  The rest of the time, it's a little painful to watch.  What really upset me was that they totally wasted Bret McKenzie.  Why get someone like Bret McKenzie to be in your movie and then not take advantage of his musical gifts?  The guy won Oscar for The Muppets for fuck's sake!  Flight of the Conchords!  Argh!!!

Like many romantic comedies, it's also extremely predictable.  Jane meets Mr. Nobley (JJ Feild), who appears to have little interest in Jane or even being there.  Meanwhile, Jane seems to be hitting it off with one of the resort workers, Martin (McKenzie).  Hmmm...I wonder how this will all develop?  All the typical rom-com tropes are here.

I also found it odd that after arriving, Jane spent much of her time alone and avoiding everyone.  Wasn't the point that she was paying for this fantasy?  Why is she acting like she'd rather be somewhere else?  You'd think she's be jazzed and dive headfirst into the experience.  I feel bad for Keri Russell.  She's had a successful TV career, but it hasn't translated well to movies.  She does her best with the material, as it's something I'd expect to be in her wheelhouse, but what's she supposed to do when it seems the only personality trait given to her is that she's good at drawing portraits?  It's like how in bad Katherine Heigl films she's either clumsy or eats junk food as a substitute for having personality.

Gaius Baltar (James Callis) was in this, too.  I thought he was really overdoing it, and he's better than this.  I did enjoy Georgia King's performance though.  I thought her performance had the right balance of goofy and serious.  It felt like how someone would really try to act emulating this style, but hadn't quite figured it out yet.

The sad part is the premise would have actually worked had they taken the opportunity to make fun of the tropes or romantic comedies and themes in Jane Austen books.  The potential was there to make a smart homage or parody, but the wit isn't there.  Instead, we have just another run-of-the-mill rom-com, that happens to be Jane Austen-themed.  Directed by Jarusha Hess, he's proving that his success with Napoleon Dynamite may have been a fluke.  He also co-wrote with Shannon Hale, whose novel this was based on.  I really hope the book was a better read.  It's interesting that the wiki for the book mentioned that Jane's great aunt left her the trip to Austenland in her will.  That seems like a more natural setup than what happened in the book.  I wonder why it was changed?

Lastly, apparently there are people that really are this devoted to Jane Austen, own Regency style clothes, learn the dances and attend balls.  I actually don't have an issue with that, and a part of me thinks it might be fun to attend one of these events.  It isn't any weirder than going to an Renaissance Faire, or being obsessed with Star Trek, Harry Potter, Wars.  I think a documentary about Jane Austen fanatics might be interesting, but that's not what Austenland is about unfortunately.  Someone should make that documentary.

Austenland has its moments, but it's ultimately a messy film that never quite hits and suffers from inconsistent tone and surprisingly amateurish performances.  I suppose if you're a fan of Jane Austen, you might get a kick out of the premise, but don't expect much as it's a predictable romantic comedy with people in Regency outfits.

1.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Boom, as in bomb!

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