Probably it’s best to ignore the variety of improbable occurrences that launch this sweet and winning meta-fictional retelling of “Pride and Prejudice.” Pay no attention to the backstory of Jane Hayes (Keri Russell), a small-town cubicle drone so obsessed with Jane Austen that she configures her whole existence in celebration of the author. Don’t dwell on the economics of a sprawling and well-staffed English estate that offers immersive romantic retreats for a few women, complete with gigolos got up in Regency garb.
Despite her desperate fandom, Jane isn’t exactly the target client for Austenland. Soon after arriving, she discovers she’s booked a downscale version of the experience. Like Elizabeth Bennet in “Pride and Prejudice,” Jane’s forced to rightsize her expectations, as she’s relegated to a room in the servants’ wing, and foisted into plain cotton shifts, instead of the elaborate gowns worn by the wealthier guests.
Naturally, she’s drawn to the brusque, aloof Henry Nobely (J.J. Feild), the obvious stand-in for Mr. Darcy. As is the case in “Pride and Prejudice,” Henry does everything he can to make himself disagreeable. Determined to find some romance, she wanders into the arms of the sensitive stableboy Martin (Bret McKenzie), who always seems within easy reach whenever Jane tires of aristocratic company.
Somehow, despite being steeped in the lore of Jane Austen’s work, down to the cardboard cutout of Colin Firth from the BBC adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice” that is the defining feature of her apartment, she still manages to be hoodwinked by the easy appeal of Martin. One of the problems with thinking too hard about “Austenland” is that in order to preserve any suspense, the movie occasionally dims Jane’s own awareness of the original Austen plots.
Jennifer Coolidge (Stifler’s mom from the “American Pie” franchise) plays to type as a randy American tourist who knows nothing of Austen, and chose the vacation package primarily for the promised romance. Georgia King plays Lady Amelia Heartwright (the guests all get fake names and titles) as a short-tempered nymph taking a break from her much older husband. Sparks are supposed to fly between these two, but their relationship is a forgettable sideshow. Mr. Feild does a fine Darcy parody — he’s brooding, angsty and given to flashing sidelong looks of wrath at nearby objects of displeasure. Mr. McKenzie, best known as Bret from “Flight of the Conchords,” does a nice job of keeping the audience guessing about whether Henry’s rustic charms belie a roguish interior.
Director Jerusha Hess, who co-directed “Napoleon Dynamite,” does a nice job of staying true to Austen’s themes, while poking savage fun at period cliches. While the jokes and set pieces occasionally feel like filler, the movie still hangs together. In the end, “Austenland” is serviceable as a romantic comedy, but mordantly funny and surprisingly literary as a satirical romp through Austen fandom.
CREDITS: Directed by Jerusha Hess; screenplay by Miss Hess and Shannon Hale, based on Miss Hale’s novel
RATING: PG-13 for language and sexual suggestiveness
RUNNING TIME: 97 minutes.
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS