It was the sight of the buxom Jennifer Coolidge being fitted into a corset of durable constitution that, for one reason or another, reminded me of the work of Jared Hess. Director of Napoleon Dynamite and Gentlemen Broncos, the man was always one for utilizing an ugly visual aesthetic to broaden his comic appeal. His wife and director of Austenland is easier on the eyes – the production design and visual aesthetic of Jerusha Hess’ film isn’t concerned with exploiting her actors to unsightly sweaters or “Vote for Pedro” t-shirts. No, Hess one-ups her husband by having a genuinely interesting idea and a lead actress of considerable range.
Following a string of unsuccessful relationships, Jane (Keri Russell) finds herself in her mid-thirties and leading an increasingly solitary life. Working a menial job and having only one friend, she figures one-last hurrah is in order as she looks to shake up her increasingly dull life. Escaping to a Jane Austen-inspired resort, Jane’s ambitions are to live out the prose of Austen’s novels. Anyone familiar with Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot have been exposed to the sort of character that Russell is playing here: someone subscribing to Jane Austen’s worldview by becoming the lovelorn heroine and enlisting the aid of a brooding man to her side. But Hess’ efforts are a little more superficial, with an emphasis on comic pleasures rather than anything of social gravitas.
Slight exercises can still boast a sense of enjoyment and that’s precisely the sweet spot that Hess hits. The wheels turn and plot developments churn where you’d expect from a romantic-comedy of this sort. It’s the likeability of the Austenland’s cast that saddles the burden of formula and keeps the whole picture afloat. Keri Russell and Bret McKenzie (of Flight of the Conchords) offer dimensions to their characters that, quite honestly, are above what a film like this requires. Unfortunately the added perspective of the setting being a resort fantasy provides the film with an is-it-real-or-not aspect that is sorely underplayed, only utilized when deemed necessary to move the plot forward. And while the ensemble has chemistry, it’s Hess’ scripting and irksome direction that makes even mild bemusement something to strain for. Not to mention the prevalence of problematic fundamental framing issues, along with some oddly edited match-on-action sequences. Simply put, it could’ve been a tighter film.
Hess and co-writer Shannon Hale tinker with the concept of arrested development through a feminist lens. But as the film unfolds and dramatic elements introduced to spike audiences’ curiosity, the film strains itself. And as Hess looks to close shop, the picture rushes to a messy and unconvincing resolution that lacks the comedic punch that made it all so likeable to begin with.