By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
Library card-carrying members of the cult of Jane Austen may get a kick from Austenland, and the notion that an amusement park based on bodice-ripping civility could exist. Those of us preferring the amusements offered by "Stone Cold" Steve Austin are better off looking elsewhere.
Austenland is a barely pleasant enough lark about an Austenphile named Jane Hayes (Keri Russell) blowing her life savings for the chance to live a few days like the author's heroines. Jane is a huge fan of corset-and-crumpets fantasy, especially the debonair Mr. Darcy of Pride and Prejudice, the Colin Firth soaked-shirt version. Her bedroom is an Austen shrine, filled with tea pots and needlepoint declarations of love. Her life, as you may expect, is pathetically crippled by dead-end romance.
All that might change with a vacation at Austenland, a superficially precise copy of Austen's era that's essentially a stuffy male escort service. Jane might hook up with the park's Mr. Darcy doppelganger, a priggish sort named Mr. Nobley (JJ Feild), or perhaps the rakish stable boy Martin (Flight of the Conchords' Bret McKenzie). Jane can't afford the platinum package of luxury; she's on the basic copper plan, playing the hard-knock role of an orphan of no fortune.
The details of Austenland are amusing, the way taxidermy props — pheasants for hunting, chickens for barnyard atmosphere — are stationed here and there, and staff's backstage quarters where authenticity clashes with modernity. Yet the movie seldom inspires laughter beyond sight gags, except when Jennifer Coolidge (Stifler's mom in the American Pie flicks) is center stage butchering Olde English or lusting after facsimiles of Austen's version of manhood.
Russell remains one of our most adorable, underused actors, although this role lacks the emotional and comedic breadth of her turn in 2007's Waitress. Coolidge steals every scene she's in, with late competition from Georgia King as a tourist more fake than the park she's visiting. They're all hampered by director and co-writer Jerusha Hess' inability to unleash the lunacy this scenario deserves, that she helped deliver in Napoleon Dynamite and to a lesser extent in Nacho Libre.
Instead, the best jokes chiefly spring from anachronistic pop music cues — a Nelly hit, Bette Davis Eyes and Lady in Red among them — and Coolidge's puffy eagerness to be pleased. Austenland could use more of her bawdiness and less of Russell's passivity, and I'd wager that Austen herself would agree.
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.