Austenland is an estate in England that offers an “immersive Austen experience” to women obsessed with the romantic plots and dishy men of Jane Austen’s novels. One of these women is Jane (Keri Russell), an American singleton so besotted with Mr. D’Arcy that no real man can compete. Jane spends all of her savings booking a week at Austenland, where the courtly country-manor resort guarantees a “romance” to every paying guest. What Jane doesn’t realize is that she has paid for a copper-level experience, and that her chance for a romance with one of the resident gentlemen does not seem certain at all, especially since there has been a booking error by the prim resort director (Jane Seymour) that leads to one more “lady” than “gent.” And the other ladies are platinum level, leaving Jane to accommodations in the servant’s wing. But perhaps all is not lost: Jane becomes smitten with a servant, the resort’s down-to-earth groom (Bret McKenzie), who is off-limits to guests.
Austenland starts out as frothy fun promising greater cleverness to come, as befits a novelistic theme park. Is the starchy director snobbish to Jane because she’s not rich, or because overcoming social conventions is part and parcel of Austeniana? Is the manor a commercial fake, or is the director trying to keep a genuine estate afloat, similar to what Downtown Abbey did for Highclere Castle? (The disappointing answer unreels at the end credits.) That Jane, who is crushed to be dubbed “Lady Erstwhile,” is far more Harriet than Emma, and that the D’Arcy-styled gent is rather dull, is made up for by the bungling enthusiasms of the other players, especially “Lady Charming” (Jennifer Coolidge), a wealthy ignoramus whose libidinous gusto for the experience, complete with 18th-century banter in a ridiculous British accent, is a continual delight. (Stiffler’s Mom has never been funnier.) Her comic foil is Lady Heartwright (Georgia King), who has the formal mannerisms of the Regency era down to an overblown T. And whomsoever shall bag the reserved but handsome Mr. Nobley (J.J. Field), and who will have to make do with the obsequious fop, Colonel Andrews (James Callis)? Since King and Callis are comic perfection, Nobley’s predictable intrusion on Jane’s dalliance with the groom seems more of a nuisance than a plot twist.
In her debut as a director, screenwriter Jerusha Hess (Napoleon Dynamite) is a total dud. This is most noticeable during the hunting party where the guests shoot at stuffed birds catapulted into the sky, and the director is blind to every shot at a sight gag. And as the parlor relationships heat up, he plays up the fakery rather than the intrigue, which dumbs down the film’s role-playing. While discussing the “dangerous game” of scripted romances, Jane admits, “I can’t tell what’s real and what isn’t.” Unfortunately, audiences will have no such dilemma.