Austenland takes place at a British estate where Jane Austen aficionados pay big money for an immersive Austen experience. Guests get to step into the land of Pride and Prejudice and similar Austen books to enjoy a pretend romance in a role-playing live-action costume drama. Sounds like a good setting for a comedy, but wait.
Imagine a half-assed version of such an attraction, where the actors hired to make the environment seem real have limited acting skills and a propensity to break character. That's the place Jane (predictably plucky Keri Russell), whose home is covered with Austen memorabilia (including a life-size cardboard standup figure of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy), spends her lifetime savings to visit. She gets the Copper package instead of the more lavish Platinum package, and Austenland proprietor Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour) treats her the way the crew in Titanic treated the folks in steerage.
And so a clever special-interest facility is morphed into an unprofessional, stuffy tourist trap for Austen geeks. Wouldn't it have better to have the staff be good at their jobs, allowing the façade to be fully established before it frays? I mean, The Truman Show wouldn't have been much of a movie had the faux citizens started breaking character immediately.
But Austenland is no Truman Show. Or Westworld. It's a sloppy, broad comedy that isn't nearly as amusing as it should be, made harder to watch by several miscast actors in highly visible places. There are moments that work, but you have to sit through a lot of bad community theater to get to them.
The highlight of the film is the performance of Jennifer Coolidge as a rich, vulgar American who is visiting primarily because she thinks she'll look sexy in the period dresses. Coolidge is best known for playing Stifler's Mom in American Pie. Over the years she has become fleshier, while continuing to present herself as the most voluptuous woman in the world. I reflexively cringe when I see Coolidge pop up in a movie or a sitcom - she's so aggressively gauche - but she often wins me over because of her willingness to do anything for a laugh. Coolidge is to Austenland what Rodney Dangerfield is to Caddyshack. Not even faintly as funny, of course. In fact, she's often downright embarrassing. Still, her desperate turn is the highlight.
If you're an Austen fan looking forward to a refined spoof of Austen-mania done in the refined style of Austen's works, I hope you read the previous paragraph. Director Jerusha Hess co-wrote the screenplay with Shannon Hale, based on her well-received 2007 novel of the same name, but the film lacks the sophistication I expected based on the concept. Austenland plays like a failed Saturday Night Live sketch that refuses to end.
So there you go. Austenland isn't offensively bad. It's just a quickly forgettable disappointment.