Friday, September 6, 2013

Austenland: What would Jane say?

Austenland (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for sexual candor and inneundo
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.6.13

This film is completely bonkers.

In the best possible way.

Determined to take control of her fantasy vacation, Jane (Keri Russell, foreground) bats
her eyes at "Col. Andrews" (James Callis, left), while an irritated "Henry Nobley" (JJ Feild,
right) prepares to bolt. These shenanigans are viewed with alarm by Mrs. Wattlesbrook
(Jane Seymour, right rear), whose carefully orchestrated plans seem to be going awry.
Austenland is a gleefully barbed swipe at über-fans who take their passions far too seriously, to the point of becoming social outcasts.

Initially restricted to Trekkies who’d craft elaborate costumes for sci-fi conventions, such behavior recently has accelerated through the mainstream, captivating (afflicting?) fans of pop-culture properties ranging from the Twilight books to, yes, Jane Austen’s novels. Indeed, Austen has begat her own sub-category of worship, whether affectionate or twisted: Bridget Jones’ fixation on Mark Darcy, in Helen Fielding’s two books, or Karen Joy Fowler’s clever Jane Austen Book Club (all of which have been made into films), and Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (also on its way to the big screen).

So while one might imagine that the events depicted in the adorably embroidered Austenland are the stuff of exaggerated farce ... well, maybe not. I’m perfectly willing to believe that such a business model could exist, and perhaps quite profitably. To paraphrase H.L. Mencken, nobody ever went broke overestimating the rabid devotion of obsessed Americans.

And while a college-level study of Austen’s books probably isn’t essential to the enjoyment of director/co-scripter Jerusha Hess’ charming comedy, a passing familiarity with the milieu will greatly enhance the experience.

Mousy Jane Hayes (Keri Russell), unhappy with her drab life, has taken solace in the elegantly romantic early 19th century British setting of Austen’s novels. Jane’s obsession has blossomed even further of late, her devotion to Colin Firth’s performance as Mr. Darcy in the 1995 production of Pride and Prejudice making it impossible for any 21st century boyfriend to compete.

When a loutish office co-worker contemptuously dismisses her behavior and offers himself as “her best and only chance,” Jane recoils by blowing her life savings on an overseas vacation at a stately Jane Austen “theme experience.”

Excited beyond words, Jane dresses in a Regency-era frock and bones up on Austen’s best literary bon mots, fully prepared to embrace the role-playing. Alas, upon arrival at the appointed stately manor, Jane discovers that her travel agent booked her into Austenland’s economy package: a distinction waspishly defined by the haughty Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour), who stage-manages the experience.

Thus, while the wealthier guests are shown into gorgeous suites and given a range of luxurious clothing, Jane finds herself in a simple room in the servants’ quarters ... and is forced to don a plain dress that Elizabeth Bennet would have recognized.

Despite suffering belittlement by Mrs. Wattlesbrook at every turn, Jane is not without friends. First and foremost is the brash, brassy “Miss Elizabeth Charming” (guests adopt Austenian names during their stay), a man-hungry cougar brought to spectacular life by the always hilarious Jennifer Coolidge. Although the epitome of a vulgar wealthy American, in her “regular” life Miss Charming has suffered her share of indignities from contemptuous idiots, and thus cloaks Jane in a protective embrace.

Then, too, Jane — now going by the nom-de-Austen of “Miss Erstwhile” — earns sympathetic glances from Martin (Bret McKenzie), a groundskeeper and faux coach driver who, as one of Mrs. Wattlesbrook’s “menials,” is forbidden contact with the paying guests.

Jane will need these allies, because the full-immersion Austen experience — due to her “lowly” financial status — offers little beyond discrimination and scorn at every turn, particularly from the condescending “Lady Amelia Heartwright” (Georgia King, recognized from TV’s late, lamented The New Normal). But the resident gentlemen are equally intimidating, whether the flamboyantly stuffy “Col. Andrews” (James Callis) or the aloofly arrogant “Mr. Henry Nobley” (JJ Feild).

Indeed, Jane’s initial encounter with the latter, marked by deliciously cutting remarks on both sides, is an amusing echo of Elizabeth Bennet’s first meeting with Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, in Pride and Prejudice. Which it’s supposed to be, of course.

Perhaps to her own surprise, however, Jane doesn’t wither beneath this constant, contemptuous onslaught; indeed, she blossoms ... and that’s the best part of this story, as adapted from Shannon Hale’s 2007 novel of the same title. (Hale collaborated with Hess on this film’s screenplay.) Despite being given every opportunity to surrender to this “true Regency experience,” Jane retains a critical eye and comes into her own, no matter how crazy the planned activity.

And things do get crazy.

The narrative offers an endless series of manic set-pieces, which Hess shrewdly builds from the merely daft to the hilariously comical. Jane’s initial drawing room experience is quirky enough, with the faux aristocratic gentlemen attempting to maintain their sangfroid in the face of Miss Charming’s snorting, come-and-get-me enthusiasm. Things get even funnier with the arrival of hunky “Capt. George East” (Ricky Whittle), and also when Mrs. Wattlesbrook “impulsively” orchestrates a stage play, which everybody is expected to participate in.

Then, too, Jane must avoid being left alone with Mrs. Wattlesbrook’s lecherous old goat of a husband.

Additional fun comes from the not-entirely-comfortable manner in which Mrs. Wattlesbrook’s various employees play their lesser roles, notably the body-builders hired to be eye-candy as footmen and butlers. Indeed, our first glimpse of Austenland’s off-limits “staff section” is a stitch in its own right, as we see these various characters during off-hours.

And that’s when this cheeky script begins its perceptive exploration of human nature: At what point does play-acting artifice become uncomfortable, and perhaps even emotionally hazardous?

Russell, well remembered from 2007’s Waitress and TV’s Felicity, makes an endearing heroine; she’s warm, intelligent and — as the narrative progresses — resourcefully defiant. We naturally care for Jane, from the moment we meet her (Austen fixation notwithstanding), and Russell rewards our loyalty by allowing her character to blossom in all the right ways. As we saw in Waitress, she has a genuine gift for romantic comedy.

The larger-than-life Coolidge is a total hoot as a ravenous man-hunter, her clumsy efforts at come-hither gazes even funnier than her inappropriately earthy remarks. Aside from being a member of Christopher Guest’s repertory company — and a memorable presence in Best in Show, A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration — Coolidge remains notorious as Stifler’s mother in the American Pie series, not to mention a host of TV show appearances. She’s utterly fearless, when it comes to making fun of her own plus-size configurations, and more power to her.

Seymour is properly imperious as Mrs. Wattlesbrook, her withering gaze able to cut down lesser mortals at 50 paces. She’s subtly, wickedly catty: a contrast to King, overstated and constantly a-flutter as Lady Amelia, who — at first — seems little more than a walking sight-gag. But watch King’s expressions; as the story progresses, and Lady Amelia’s part expands, she delivers some droll hooded frowns and double-takes.

By design, the men in Jane’s theme holiday are polar opposites: Field a picture of aristocratic impatience as the aloof Nobley, while McKenzie’s Martin couldn’t be kinder, gentler ... or more vexed, as time goes on, and he fears that Jane is falling under the spell of this make-believe nonsense.

Hess made her splash as half of the married team who uncorked the darkly humorous Napoleon Dynamite roughly a decade ago; they were less successful with follow-ups Nacho Libre and Gentlemen Broncos. This new film marks Hess’ ascent to the director’s chair, on her first project without husband Jared. She and Hale clearly share the same snarky sense of humor, and their collaboration here is rich with both verbal and physical comedy.

But I fear Austenland is destined to remain in the cinematic hinterlands; based on the sparse audience that attended Tuesday’s preview screening, mainstream viewers don’t seem to get the extended joke. To be sure, Austen fans will return for multiple viewings, but — despite the recent flurry of adaptations — their numbers aren’t legion.

Too bad, because the rest of you won’t know what you’re missing. This film is a stitch from the first scene to the last, and be sure to remain seated when the story proper concludes, for not just one, but two surprise epilogues. (Shades of Bollywood musicals!)

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