In Austenland, Keri Russell plays Jane Hayes, a thirtysomething single gal with a fixation on the novels of Jane Austen that doesn't just border, but leaps over, the obsessive.
Jane is so gone on Mr. Darcy, the dark-and-dreamy hero of Austen's Pride & Prejudice, that she keeps a life-sized cardboard cutout of Colin Firth, who essayed the role in the beloved BBC miniseries adaptation, in her living room. The rest of Jane's apartment, tripped out in all manner of Austen memorabilia, is no less a tribute to her goony, romantic fanaticism. After yet another relationship falls by the waysideand determined to find a flesh-and-blood Mr. DarcyJane blows her life savings on a trip to the aforementioned Austenland, an English country manor devoted to re-creating the experience of the typical Austen heroine during the Regency era.
The material, which springs from a 2007 chick-lit novel by Shannon Hale, has all the makings of a delightful movieperfect light end of summer fareand it's no wonder that "Twilight" author Stephanie Meyer was so drawn to the book that she's made it her first producing gig. But the result, helmed by Jerusha Hess (who, with her husband Jared, also co-wrote and co-directed Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre), never really lives up to its initial, frothy promise.
Arriving in England Jane meets her fellow Austen enthusiast, the dim-witted Elizabeth (played by Jennifer Coolidge) and also quickly learns that she's only been able to afford the equivalent of the scullery maid's package while Elizabeth has sprung for the deluxe, which gives her ladyship status. The pair is greeted by Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour, appropriately cast and having a hammy good time), the snobbish owner of Austenland who runs roughshod over the actors portraying the various characters as well as her drunken lech of a husband, and makes sure that the guests get exactly what they pay for and not a smidgen more.
Thus, poor Jane is costumed in the drab garb of an old maid, consigned to a miniscule, unadorned room and warned away from fraternizing much with the actors playing roles above her station. On the other hand, Elizabeth has her choice of bust-popping outfits, wigs, a lavishly appointed suite and other benefits. The witty, gimmicky set-up holds for a good 25 minuteshelped along by some very funny sight gags like a stuffed sheep Seymour clutches, a dresser bulging with twee china tea cups in Jane's apartment, and the stuffed codpieces on the hunky servants over whom Elizabeth salivates.
But once we get settled in with Jane, Elizabeth and a third guest, the spoiled rich girl Lady Amelia (Georgia King)who for a long time I thought was another of the actors hired for the weekendthe delicious intrigues and verbal sparring that are hallmarks of Austen's novels are mostly missing. Jane takes a momentary shine to Martin, a ne'er-do-well stable groom (a darkly handsome Bret McKenzie) who breaks character and gets drunk and fraternizes intimately with her. Then she brazenly announces her intention to jump class in an attempt to win over the actor playing Henry Nobley (J.J. Feild), the Mr. Darcy type.
While this is going on, there are some laugh-out-loud moments over Elizabeth's many malapropisms ("Colonel, you really are a saucy monkey," she blurts out at table), her obsession with one of the actors who is clearly gay and more sight gagsthe actors lolling about on their time off, sunning by a pool bitching about the boss, for example. But the Austen signatureher characters' delicious felicity with words welded to their adherence to the rigid, exacting social customs that strapped them in as tight as the corsets everybody wore and the huge subtext of botharen't much in evidence as the plot wends its way to a slapdash, predictable rom-com finish.
Russell is part of the problem. She's a very good actress (as evidenced by her work in the intense television series The Americans, the overlooked August Rush and, especially, her lead turn in Waitress) but she's best as playing level-headed realists. Here, she's anything but a moony, dreamer type and her Jane never really connects with either the stable hand or her Mr. Darcy fill-in. Coolidge, of course is daffiness itself and what a pleasure to see in such a large supporting role but it would have helped the movie a lot to add other Austen freaks to the mix and to have given her more to bounce off.
Although Austenland is mostly a nice, light, little trifle, it's ultimately half a soufflé at bestone that never quite rises to the occasion.
Writer-director Brian De Palma has made a career out of creating icy, sensual thrillers elevated by their penultimate sequences in which terrifying things are observed in intimate detail by his elegantly roving camera, often in slow motion. De Palma fans can recite them like a proud teacher can offer a list of favorite students: There are the prom sequence in Carrie, the razor murder of Angie Dickinson in the elevator in Dressed to Kill, the murder of Nancy Allen as the luckless hooker in Blow Out, the gangland hit on the courtroom stairs in The Untouchables, the theft of the diamond snake breastplate in Femme Fatalefor openers.
But nothing in Passion, De Palma's latest, has anything that comes close to those or many other memorable of the director's set pieces. Instead, the plot of the moviein which a nasty advertising executive (played by a blonde Rachel McAdams) with plenty of sexual kinks plays cat and mouse games (or is it the other way around?) with her career-hungry assistant (the brunette Noomi Rapace)seems like an imitation of one of his earlier films. The blonde is murdered, the brunette is accused and the audience has figured out well ahead of the brunette's pretty red-haired assistant, a lesbian with a hankering for the boss lady, what is actually going on.
There is an attempt near the end to create yet another of those famed De Palma montages but by that time the lazy plotting and the waste of McAdams and Rapace had almost checked me out of the picture. Yet, like late-period Hitchcock, you hang in there because there's enough zing left on the screen to let you know you're watching a real filmmaker at workbut the payoffs never really come and certainly the movie never lives up to its title.
Of related interest: You want to see some bad, awful, nasty women on screen? Look no further than Noir City: Chicago, the Music Box Theatre's fifth annual film noir fest that returns to the historic venue (3733 N. Southport Ave.) Friday-Thursday, Aug. 23-29. The 17 films in this year's series include well-known noir classics like Night and the City and Night Has a Thousand Eyes and pays particular attention to those aforementioned rotten egg ladies. The lineup includes Sunset Boulevard, Niagara, the rare Technicolor noir Leave Her to Heaven and my favorite on the bill (because it's so rarely screened)1947's Desert Fury, in which Mary Astor and the lesbian actor Lizbeth Scott tussle as a tough, casino-owning mother fixated on her spoiled brat daughter. Oh, and there's an undeniable homoerotic subplot involving Wendell Corey and John Hodiak, to boot. Eddie Muller and Alan K. Rode from the Film Noir Foundation will be on hand to introduce many of the screenings and conduct audience Q&A's. Complete schedule at www.musicboxtheatre.com