Keri Russell, she of "Felicity" and "Waitress" and many others, is such a winning actress, even in a flat soda of a comedy like "Austenland," she's in there, doing all she can to carbonate things.
Against type, she plays the insecure thirtysomething Jane, an utter freak for all things Jane Austen. Her "I HEART MR. DARCY" T-shirt says it all.
Rashly, she blows her live savings on a getaway English vacation with a difference: The resort she chooses, run by a fearsome witch played by Jane Seymour, is a Club Med for the frills-and-bonnets set, designed to ravish the senses and satisfy the literary fantasies of female Austen fans from all over, allowing the guests to dress the part. And maybe to find love with one of the hunky actors playing stableboys and the like.
"Austenland" comes from the novel by Shannon Hale, and Hale adapted it along with the director, Jerusha Hess. It should've worked better, given Hess' generous attitude toward her ensemble and her noble efforts to spread the comic wealth around.
We've all been living in Austenland for years; it's her world; we're simply her poor but honest neighbors. Russell's character becomes pals with a fellow American played by Jennifer Coolidge, who uncorks a deliberately terrible Cockney accent once the story lands in the English countryside.
"I'm going to look great in those wench costumes!" she gushes to Jane, who's more of a buttoned-down, buttoned-up archetype.
Perhaps it would've taken someone on the order of Emma Thompson at the keyboard to simultaneously honor and gently deride the Austen mystique in a fresh way. The movie that did get made feels tentative — all too attuned to the blandly easygoing protagonist. At times, "Austenland" tiptoes up to a more risque sort of project, an "Exit to Eden" with corsets that won't come off. Jane gradually blossoms and becomes the reluctant but secretly happy queen bee, around which the drones in breeches keep buzzing. Russell has everything it takes to make the script work.
But on-screen, she can't help it: Russell radiates good sense and solid grounding, and here she's playing a paradoxical flighty obsessive of no special spark. As filmed, half of "Austenland" is too broad, and the other half sits quietly in the corner.
And then what happens? At the end, as with so many adequately made comedies of recent years, there's a choreographed dance routine featuring all the major players as the credits roll. It's charming. Maybe "Austenland" should've been a musical.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for some suggestive content and innuendo
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Playing: At the Arclight in Hollywood and the Landmark in West L.A.
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