Paper-thin premise frays despite the elegant presence of Keri Russell
There is something sweet and wholesome about Keri Russell – who made a name for herself on the television series “Felicity” – that’s unique and sets up an interesting contrast with the impression we have of, say, television darling Jennifer Aniston. Russell’s not the household name, the ubiquitous superstar “Friend” who has always been there for us, who we now have problems accepting beyond that all-too familiar role. Russell owns an indie niche that’s all her own. She’s perky and cute, which somehow works despite the fact that there doesn’t seem to be much room in the indie cliché for perky and cute. Female indie characters are usually dark, sarcastic and ironic, even though, by the end of their stories, their hard edges get sanded smooth by the buzz-saw sentimentality of love and happiness.
Russell can start off in the distress, but the darkness never completely obscures the lightness of her being. She’s the eternal optimist, the lighthouse guiding the narrative towards the shore. What makes her so engaging, in ways that Aniston doesn’t quite manage, or hasn’t in her film roles, is her accessibility – she truly is the girl next door, but there’s something fantastically unreal about her. Russell seems more like a literary creation, sprung from the mind of a chick-lit writer sipping lattes at the local coffeehouse.
Which makes her perfect for “Austenland,” where as modern-day lass Jane Hayes, she’s a Jane Austen fanatic – an obsessive who lives and breathes the Old World romance of Austen’s age, yet never projects an Old World presence that would mark her as a woman out of her time. Russell’s Jane is a contemporary romantic. She wants the sparks of attraction that arises from two people engaged in social interaction, not social media. Go figure.
Jane takes her life’s savings and books a ticket to an adult theme park based on the world of Jane Austen, where she believes she will find her very own Mr. Darcy – who must look like Colin Firth to make the fantasy complete. There are rules, haughtily detailed by the park madam (Jane Seymour, thoroughly enjoying the saucy, sexy roles that have come her way in recent years), which seek to guarantee that patrons understand that they are being provided a make-believe romantic getaway with no promise of an actual happy ending. The reserved hunks, like Mr. Henry Nobley (JJ Felid), are actors for hire, nothing more.
With that being perfectly clear, Jane winds up saddling up with Martin (Bret McKenzie), a stable boy who refuses to take all the stilted Old World hijinks seriously and starts to chip away at Jane’s need to hold on to the fantasy. Before long though, the inevitable romantic confrontation between Nobley and Martin begins to take shape, and writer Jerusha Hess (“Napoleon Dynamite” and “Nacho Libre”) seizes the helm here, but stumbles a bit trying to twist us up in any kind of knot over the proceedings. With those earlier films, Hess displayed more than enough quirk and a certain charm, but she didn’t appear willing to trust herself and her star this time.
Too bad, because Russell could have carried this little treat home without anyone even caring which one of these guys earned the honor of her hand. Instead, “Austenland” becomes a behind the scenes power-play, which felt like more of a misguided nod to “The Player” rather than a smart modern take on Austen’s social mores. Stick with what works, and here, that would be a highly-literate best friend like Russell.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com.