Badly cast and often badly acted, “Austenland” needs lessons on how a proper spoof should behave.
Much of it comes down to foundation. A farce needs an effective comic presence at its center — someone who can, much like a corset, hold things together amid the comic chaos while also being funny.
“Austenland” lacks that in lead actress Keri Russell, who is no comedienne. Nor is she plausible as a Jane Austen obsessive — also named Jane — who blows her savings on an immersive, role-playing Jane Austen-themed English vacation.
Russell appears far too self-possessed to be believable as a supposedly pathetic woman who has filled her apartment with Austen memorabilia that includes a cardboard cutout of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in the BBC’s “Pride & Prejudice.”
Too grounded and serious for farce, Russell’s actually well-suited to play Mr. Darcy, were there ever a gender-neutral or gender-switch “P&P” adaptation.
Russell does nothing wrong in “Austenland” besides be naturally non-zany. Novice director Jerusha Hess (co-writer of “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Nacho Libre”), by contrast, actively offends viewer sensibilities by cultivating overly broad performances and allowing in weak comic bits that should not have made the final script (co-written by Hess and Shannon Hale, from Hale’s novel).
When a vintage automobile pulls around to gather Jane and a fellow American resort guest (Jennifer Coolidge) from the airport in England, the fellow guest believes it arrived from Austen’s Regency era: “They even sent us a car from the 1800s.”
As bad as that scene is, at least it’s a real bit. Most of the time, Coolidge just yells ostensible Brit-isms in a faux-English accent. Her wealthy, tacky character goes by the name Miss Elizabeth Charming at the Austen resort, which hires actors to play female guests’ potential suitors. The guests are guaranteed romantic evening walks around the estate and all the empire-waist dresses they can wear.
Coolidge is playing a parody of her gold-digger character in Christopher Guest’s “Best in Show.” But that character already was a parody and stacking all those outrageous traits takes the film over the top.
An isolated distraction in the film’s first half, Coolidge’s performance eventually spreads to other actors the way illnesses did in Austen’s pre-vaccine day. Previously measured comic performances by Georgia King and James Callis, who play hired guest-companions, fly into caricature.
Others keep it together. Jane Seymour maintains her dignity as exacting resort owner Mrs. Wattlesbrook, and JJ Feild, who plays an actor cast by the resort as a Darcy type, rarely wavers from a basic standoffish quality.
More emotive, and even nuanced, is Bret McKenzie (HBO’s “Flight of the Conchords”) as the estate’s chauffeur and groomsman. The standout in this cast, McKenzie sheds all hints of “Conchords” goofiness as a possible romantic interest for Jane.
Jane’s status at the resort is just above the groomsman’s. Whereas Miss Charming sprang for the deluxe package, Jane’s more modest plan includes accommodations in the servants’ quarters. Mrs. Wattlesbrook is quick to remind Jane that she’s lower tier, just as the busy bodies in Austen novels keep precise track of everyone’s incomes.
The resort owner has given Jane a character name, Miss Erstwhile, a plain brown dress and a back story as an orphan with no prospects. She also forbids Jane and Miss Charming from using modern devices. Jane Austen did not use a cellphone, despite what Miss Charming might believe.
“Austenland” holds potential for subversive humor in exploring the tacit masochism within a far-from-rich modern American woman whose fantasy life exists in early 19th century England, where women’s rights were few and non-wealthy women’s rights were nonexistent. Or the more generalized masochism of tourists who drop thousands to be bossed around on cattle-herding vacations and the like.
But “Austenland” never goes that deep. Why explore subtext when there are chamber-pot jokes to be made?
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB