** (out of four)
How quickly a good idea becomes a bad one when a filmmaker doesn't trust his or her subject.
Jane (Keri Russell) begins "Austenland" totally fixated on ye olde England as captured by Jane Austen, to the point that it says "Darcy was here" above her headboard. She's psyched to visit Austenland, the world's only immersive Austen experience, which promises to "make your fantasy a reality." Yet almost immediately upon arriving, Jane detaches from the illusion and appears like a well-adjusted, disinterested fish out of water, even though she's the one who spent her life savings to attend this days-long role-playing excursion. Huh?
Condescension comes standard for co-writer Jerusha Hess, making her directorial debut after co-writing her husband's bitter, unfunny "Napoleon Dynamite," "Nacho Libre" and "Gentlemen Broncos." In "Austenland," Hess tries to have it both ways by mocking characters and also asking us to feel for them. Playing the typical Jennifer Coolidge role, Jennifer Coolidge plays a fellow visitor to Austenland who, of course, behaves in an overtly sexual, non-classy way that generally revolves around her boobs.
Surprisingly, the best stuff comes during old-fashioned banter between Jane and Mr. Nobley (JJ Feild), who capture the tart playfulness that makes Austen's characters easy to love for those inclined to fall for romance harnessed by corsets and the importance of being proper. So it's frustrating that Jane's feelings about her trip constantly change, and Hess, who adapted the script with Shannon Hale from her novel, retreats from potentially interesting wrinkles as a real Austen-esque love triangle appears to develop in this fictional Austen world.
Instead, the film's wishy-washy about romantic fantasies in a modern world and too disdainful of its subject to embrace its ruse. In a story about how to know what kind of love to believe in, it's the film that can't be trusted.
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