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Austenland (2013)

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Score: 8/10

Genre: Romantic Comedy Running Time: 1 hr. 37 min.

Release Date: August 16th, 2013 MPAA Rating: PG-13

Director: Jerusha Hess Actors: Keri Russell, JJ Feild, Jennifer Coolidge, Bret McKenzie, Georgia King, James Callis

S

ince high school, in which she listened earnestly to her English 212 class on Jane Austen and toted around her “I Love Darcy” folder, Jane Hayes (Keri Russell) has been utterly infatuated with all things Jane Austen. She considers herself the famous author’s biggest fan. When she learns of “Austenland,” a vacation getaway in which the Regency Era is manufactured for enthusiasts wishing to live out their own Austenesque fantasy, she spends her life savings to journey to its European location. Against the advice of her pregnant but normal friend Molly, who desperately wants to spoil Jane’s unhealthy addiction, Hayes proceeds with her trip.

Only able to afford the “Copper” package and not the “Platinum” version that allows extra privileges and activities at the grandiose manor at Austenland, loveless Jane is undeterred from finding her own “Fitzwilliam Darcy” (the wealthy beaux in “Pride and Prejudice”) – which is incidentally guaranteed by a contract dictating that participants will be romanced by one of the many actors. But inappropriate touching is forbidden. The facility is run by the strict Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour) and her licentious husband (Rupert Vansittart), believing in complete, detail-oriented immersion – involving clothing, hairstyles, hats and accessories, transportation, dialogue, and a new name for Hayes: “Ms. Erstwhile.” While her residency bestows an opportunity to become romantically entangled with stable boy Martin (Bret McKenzie), who operates outside the exacting conformity of Austenland, Jane is also wooed by Henry Nobley (JJ Field, an appropriate choice having played in a BBC production of “Northanger Abbey”). Nobley is an actor mustering every attractant and foible of an authentic Darcy.

The characters are thrown into Austenland so quickly that a frame of reference is barely established, leaving audiences to sort out their own interpretations of normalcy and insanity. “I don’t know what’s real or what’s not anymore!” exclaims Jane after toiling over her bedecked love triangle, speaking volumes to the tone of nearly every scenario. The worse the acting the better the results as the line between reality and fantasy is ingeniously and awkwardly blurred. Is it roleplaying? Are they all performers? The extent of the fanciful misadventures and sassy dialogue is so uncanny that the production has an absorbingly unreal feel.

It starts light and airy, with silly humor highlighted by the impertinent blathers of partaker Elizabeth Charming (Jennifer Coolidge), carefully walking the line between scatterbrained and unbelievable, and doesn’t deviate until the climax. There are no outside, negative influences to crash the fictitious reverie, which remains in a constant state of senselessness, as if enacted by insane asylum patients (like Philippe de Broca’s “King of Hearts” or a comedic “Marat/Sade”). But it’s weirdly hilarious and unlike any other film; even during a staff break, relaxing around a pool, it’s difficult to determine who is remaining in character, as everyone is tinged with overexaggeration and thematic nuttiness. Although Jane is certainly far from traditional (a Napoleon Dynamite in her own right, and another offbeat character penned by screenwriter and first time director Jerusha Hess), she eventually becomes the only remaining source of rational fabric for viewers to latch onto – giving this hallucinatory comedy a fantastic level of originality.

– Mike Massie

 



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