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Dear viewer, you’ll tire of ‘Austenland’ gags


Jane Hayes Keri Russell

Henry Nobley JJ Feild

Martin Bret McKenzie

Elizabeth Charming Jennifer Coolidge

Sony Pictures Classics presents a film directed by Jerusha Hess and written by Hess and Shannon Hale, based on Hale’s novel. Running time: 97 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for some suggestive content and innuendo). Opens Friday at Landmark Century, CineArts 6 in Evanston and Landmark Renaissance Place in Highland Park.

Updated: September 24, 2013 6:08AM

Fans of Jane Austen come in various degrees of commitment. There are those who have read the novels and own a box set of (and have crushed on) the Colin Firth edition of “Pride and Prejudice.” These fans know where to draw the line.

On the other end of the spectrum are those who dream of a total immersion in the Jane Austen experience.

The latter of these, the overboard Austen obsession, is the premise of “Austenland,” the clunky directing debut of Jerusha Hess (co-writer of “Napoleon Dynamite”). Based on Shannon Hale’s guilty-pleasure novel of the same title, it’s a romantic comedy with all sorts of possibilities that instead relies on heavy-handed sight gags and over-the-top performances. The Regency-period setting serves merely as a background for all the hijinks.

Mousey Jane Hayes (Keri Russell) lives in an apartment that is a trinket-filled Austen wonderland; she is starry-eyed when she talks about the classic books and the men in them. When her boyfriend wants to make out, she’s instead glued to the television screen watching “Pride and Prejudice.” Yes, Jane’s love life is a dead end; there’s a cardboard cutout of Firth’s Mr. Darcy in her bedroom. “I am single,” she explains, “because all the good men are fictional.”

So when Jane is challenged by a clear-sighted friend to start living in the real world, her solution is to spend her savings on a trip to the theme park Austenland (“the world’s only immersive Austen experience”), located at an English country manor where strict Mrs. Wattlesworth (Jane Seymour) employs a roster of actors to play maids, footmen and eligible young men amidst all the sumptuous surroundings. She informs all her guests that they “will experience romance.”

Since Jane bought the cheapest package, she is introduced to the other wealthier guests as “Jane Erstwhile, an orphan of no fortune.” Undaunted, like any good Austen heroine, she decides to make the best of a bad situation and befriends Miss Elizabeth Charming (Jennifer Coolidge), who helps her transform her dowdy look. Both editions of Jane have caught the attention of Mr. Henry Nobley (JJ Feild), the aloof Mr. Darcy type, and Martin (Bret McKenzie), the devious Mr. Wickham-like groundskeeper.

Russell, who is riveting in the FX television series “The Americans,” doesn’t really have to prove anything with this role. She strains to do what she can with material that is often flat and overthought.

Coolidge’s bawdy character offers a few good laughs but quickly becomes tiresome. When given the right material, she’s an expert at playing the enjoyable ditzy blonde (“Best in Show,” “Legally Blonde”), but here she is over-the-top vulgar with no real role in the story. It’s a cringe-worthy performance and a real waste of talent.

Much like the book it’s adapted from, this movie is a trifle; it’s sometimes amusing but more often awkward and lumbering. Yet it also has intriguing and unsettling moments as Jane bobbles between the affections of her suitors. Are the men crossing the lines between acting and what she hopes is reality? She can’t tell and neither can the audience. Hess does a fine job of maintaining this welcome suspense; it’s the comedy that’s just not up to par.

And then there’s this: Why would a modern young woman pine for the limitations of 19th century love? It’s a question that should have been explored but is never answered to any satisfaction. Despite a clever premise, the parts of “Austenland” never come together into a satisfying whole. Jane Austen fans of any level will be left wanting more.

Mary Houlihan is a local free-lance writer.

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