"Make your fantasy a reality." Has there ever been a more effective sales pitch? Of course, it's a promise that's rarely if ever what it's cracked up to be. The new romantic comedy Austenland casts a skeptical eye on the fantasy of romantic comedy itself, dating all the way back to the divine Miss Jane.
Novelist Shannon Hale co-adapted her book with writer-director Jerusha Hess (co-writer of Napoleon Dynamite), and the results are pretty darn entertaining, especially for rom-com junkies and Janeites. Keri Russell plays Jane Hayes, a thirtysomething single woman whose unhealthy obsession with the works of Jane Austen (and the stiff-upper-lip hunkiness of Colin Firth's screen Mr. Darcy) have no doubt contributed to her state of romantic dissatisfaction.
Jane seizes on the opportunity to holiday in the Regency era at Austenland, a cross between a living-history museum and a resort where cosplay is the order of every day. Hess briskly sets up the premise with a promotional video featuring proprietress Mrs. Wattlesbrook (an ideally cast Jane Seymour), who clutches a fake lamb and promises, "You get to play the heroine of your very own Jane Austen story...as in happily ever after."
Of course, Austenland is that peculiar sort of place where one has to squint to make it work, even for those signed up for the deluxe "Platinum Package." Our Jane has to make do with the "exclusions" of her "Copper Level" package, a nifty spin on Austen's class issues that also allows Jane more time to roam the grounds and find trouble.
Accepting the role of "Miss Erstwhile," Jane keeps company with fellow travellers "Miss Elizabeth Charming" (the always funny Jennifer Coolidge)—a kind-hearted dimwit—and the flouncing, treacherous "Lady Amelia Heartwright" (Georgia King) while sizing up Austenland's male suitors: the Darcy-esque "Mr. Henry Nobley" (JJ Feild), toothy twit "Colonel Andrews" (James Callis), and "Captain George East" (Ricky Whittle), who seems to have escaped from the cover of a paperback romance novel.
Though Jane at first seems to be defined by an emotional frailty, the self-described "nerd' quickly shows signs of coming into her own and eventually demonstrates defiant willpower. Though she snaps, "I am single because apparently the only good men are fictional," she quickly realizes she wants "something real," an impulse that draws her to Austenland's stable buck Martin (Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords).
While having some fun with the idle fancies of the Regency era (women plying their needles, amateur theatricals), Austenland focuses on the "dangerous kind of game" involved in pairing everyday women with men paid to be their fantasies, in a narrative meant to climax in an engagement. As a tart analogy for our escapism into literature and romantic comedies, Austenland is, itself, enaging, if not particularly sharp. Unfortunately, it loses its nerve in the end, undermining its own central theme.