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Friday, 06 September 2013 00:00

'Austenland' bombs big -- Janeites beware!

'Austenland' bombs big -- Janeites beware! sonyclassics.com/austenland
Written by Martha K. Baker
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  • Director: Jerusha Hess
  • Dates: Opens Sept. 06, 2013

Maybe, somewhere back in the early phases of Shannon Hale's writing, "Austenland" had the promise of tweaking all those readers crazy for the days of Jane Austen. They were lazy days without television but larded with gossip and morals, of pride and prejudice, sense and sensibility.

They were days of empire dresses and mop caps and male supremacy. Days of yore. If the time you were born to was later, say, by several centuries, Austen's days might have seemed precious by extension. So if you were Shannon Hale, you could exploit readers' desires to live in those days. You could poke fun at those ladies pining for Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice because none of the ne'er do wells at Jamba Juice measure up. Any committed satirist could have made a big deal out of contrasting the two worlds, including times back stage where the actors portraying the various rulers of Austenland could be checking their e-mail while half-dressed in period costumes.

Turning this book into a movie means the only person who made any money, surely, was the codpiece costumer. "Austenland" is a poor rendition of a frivolous book. Novelist Hale co-wrote the screenplay with Jerusha Hess, who directed; she also wrote "Napoleon Dynamite."

The film is a mess, and one cannot fault that codpiece provider. One faults, among other targets, the casting. Keri Russell plays Jane Hayes. Her bedroom vomits homages to Austen's few novels, including wall words that declare "Mr. Darcy Was Here" over the bed. Her room is full of tea pots should she desire a cuppa any time, day or night. Russell is supposed to be a plain Jane, living in fantasyland, but Russell is not plain. Nor is she a good foil to the likes of Jennifer Coolidge, who plays a buxom airhead (typecast?) out to find a boy toy. The other female roles are taken by Georgia King, from television's "The New Normal," and Jane Seymour, a k a TV's Dr. Quinn. The males' placeholder roles are taken by JJ Feild, who plays the aptly named Mr. Nobley, the brooder and James Callis from "Bridget Jones" as the Henry Crawford character.

"Austenland" is supposed to be a romantic comedy, but it is far from funny. It is far from satirical or political or literary. And all of Ilan Eshkeri's music carries Oscar overtones, draped over scenes without dialogue. When there is dialogue, it's regrettable. "Austenland" does no one good service, not in the Regency romance era nor in the 21st century when plain Janes are not stuck as victims in Spinsterland. 

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