Sunday, October 26, 2014

Austenland (2013)

This trifle is neither funny, romantic nor engaging enough to recommend, but at least it's not the most painful way to spend 97 minutes.

Jane Hayes is a "Jane Austen" fanatic. The more losers she dates, the more firmly enmeshed in Fitzwilliam Darcy fantasies she becomes. Her apartment is chock full of Edwardian collectibles, dolls, dollhouses, china, costumes and, to top it all off, countless likenesses of Darcy, including a life-size cardboard cutout of Colin Firth in the role.

Her obsession culminates in the decision to trade in her Toyota Tercel and spend her entire life savings on an Austenland package, where she will travel to England and live in a recreation of Austen's world, peopled by actors who play period characters. All patrons are promised a romance at the end of the trip.

Her friend, Molly, tries to talk her out of the expenditure, but to no avail. They make a bet, however. If the trip ends up in disaster, Jane promises to de-Austenize her abode, because the fanaticism is getting out of hand. Jane agrees, but I'm left puzzled because Molly never specifies what Jane will win if the trip turns out to be a success.

I'm not sure whether Jane is more keen on Austen or the dream of idealistic love. Idolizing the former is certainly less destructive than continually longing for the latter.

Once Jane's journey begin, it's at the UK airport that we learn that she only had enough money to pay for the low level package. She quickly meets another patron, the incorrigible and overblown Lizzie (played by Jennifer Coolidge), who seems to have never read a book, much less one of Austen's. But she has plenty of money to spend and has purchased the platinum package, which gives her all the pride, prejudice and frills that money can buy. I'm not sure why they didn't' make the lead character "Lizzie" and have the frivolous, man-hungry Coolidge serve as "Lydia." Surely it cannot be because they didn't want to be too obvious, because this movie is nothing if not that.

When Jane and Lizzie meet the Austenland owners, the Wattlesbrooks, the class discrimination becomes sharp. Lizzie, Miss Moneybags, receives the most deferential treatment, the best wardrobe, best service and best living quarters. Lizzie is transported in a carriage and Jane must ride on the outside jump seat. Since Lizzie seems to have a good heart, it is unclear why she doesn't defend her new friend more. If she advocated on Jane's behalf (as another customer, Amelia, later does), Jane would certainly receive more respect from Wattlesbrook, but then I suppose the plot -- such as it is -- would end summarily.
Jane's room is in the poor tower, miles away from Lizzie's and requiring a trek through the servant's corners to get there. In fact, one of the rare funny lines in the movie came when a sympathetic Lizzie reassures Jane that "I'm just around the corner" and remembers that, actually, she's not and that Jane sleeps in such a far, deserted place that it gives Lizzie nightmares to think of her there.

Jane does not even get to select her own fantasy surname. While the high-paying customers are "Charming" and "Heartwright," Jane is called "Jane Erstwhile."

At the big house (modeled after Darcy's Pemberly), Jane meets the male actors who play the Edwardian suitors, Wattlesbrook's nephew Henry Nobley and Colonel Andrews. At the first group dinner, Wattlesbrook unceremoniously reveals that Jane (the real woman, not just the fictional character she is playing) has had a disappointing love life. Why Wattlesbrook would be in possession of this information about a paying customer is unclear. But it gives some of the other group members cause to pity (or in Henry's case empathize with) Jane, while others, Amelia who is modeled after Austen's Lady Catherine de Bourgh use the information as reason to scorn her.

Later a largely shirtless Captain East also enters the scene to vie for the female attention, but since he is so far removed from anything resembling an Austen character, his presence is jarring. It is not effective to divert so wildly from the film's construct. It would be fine to have a Captain East in the story, who acted less like a Chippendale's dancer, especially when Wattlesbrook lectures her guests at the beginning that no out of character or risqué behavior would be allowed.

As Pride and Prejudice dictates, the snobby Henry and Jane dislike each other initially. But when he breaks character, we learn that Henry is a history professor who was dumped by his girlfriend. From the beginning, he has felt himself more like Jane than not. His banter with her is a way to protect his feelings, not a sign of condescension.

The problem is that I don't feel Jane experiencing the grudging attraction and stings of humiliation and self-consciousness that Elizabeth Bennett always had in Darcy's presence. Yes, Henry does seem awestruck by Jane from afar. Clearly, his cool retorts are defensive rather than antagonistic and the story might be better told from his perspective.

Jane quickly tires of the Austen actors and gravitates towards groomsman Martin. He dresses like a stablehand and servant, but whenever he and Jane are alone together, he breaks character and scoffs at those playing the charade. He may hate the Wattlesbrook pretending, but he loves the animals that he tends and when Jane sees him assist in the birth of a foal, she begins to feel that she wants to be part of his "real" world much more than she wants to continue in the Austen fantasy one that she's purchased. She escapes all Wattlesbrook-organized events that she can, to spend all of her time with Martin.

On one occasion, when her horse stalls, Martin leaves to get her another, when Jane is caught in a downpour. Henry comes along and insists that she get on his horse, so that they can ride to shelter. She says she can only ride sidesaddle in her dress and, disregarding her objections, he rips open the skirt and slings her astride his saddle. As he holds her, soaked, against him she nervously acts if he has her and he assures her that she does. It is actually an endearing moment and maybe I would have liked more between those two, but Jane actually spends more time canoodling with Martin and enjoying it quite a bit, so I have no particular rooting interest for Henry. A triangle may have worked in Bridget Jones Diary, but this Austen derivation would have worked better if only Henry and Jane remained at the heart of the story.

When Martin sees Jane laughing with Captain East (he doesn't even become jealous of Henry), he gives her the cold shoulder and says she would much rather socialize with the actors than with him. Soon after, Henry saves her from the lecherous Mr. Wattlesbrook and she becomes friendly with him, but even when he walks her to her room and urgently kisses her hand before reluctantly parting, their exchanges seem far from passionate.

Jane finds the needlework, promenades and musical performances the women must engage in to stay in character tedious. When Wattlesbrook insists that Jane take her turn at the piano, Jane plays "it's getting hot in here, so take off all your clothes..." by Nelly. Maybe that would have been funny if I'd seen the movie in theater, but as it is, I'm left cold. Of course, they repeat this performance for the closing credits, because it's just so funny to have people dressed in Edwardian garb sprouting lines like, "give that man what he askin for, cuz I feel like bustin loose and I feel like touchin you," right? Maybe if Dame Maggie Smith was doing it, I'd chuckle. But Keri Russell? Not so much.

Jane smuggled her cell phone into her room so she could keep in touch with her friend, Molly, back home. When Mrs. Wattlesbrook finds it, she leaps at the chance to throw Jane out of the trip. But another customer, Amelia, intervenes and says that the phone was actually hers, not Jane's. Since Amelia is a wealthy and valued customer, Wattlesbrook quickly forgets that possession of the phone was a breach of the rules and tells everyone the incident should never be spoken of again. Jane gets to stay, but leaving would not have been a devastating turn of events in her mind, at this point.

The group then puts on an amateur play, written by Wattlesbrook which is supposed to be comical in its awfulness, but is simply awful. They are to pair up. Amelia asks Jane to help her spend time alone with Captain East and, beholden to Amelia for the cell phone cover up, Jane chooses Henry as her partner for the play, against her will and to his pleasant surprise. They play a pair of lovebirds in the enactment and laugh over the many glitches they experience. They find that they enjoy each other's company.

At the ball Wattlesbrook has staged to cap off the vacation, Jane has promised the first two dances to Henry. Martin sulks at being shunned and Jane seems interested in resuming their romance. Later, Henry proposes to Jane, in a scene similar to Darcy's second proposal to Elizabeth. Jane says that she didn't expect to feel that way when it actually happened. Actually, her feelings are so ambiguous that you can take this statement two ways: 1. She didn't expect to have really feelings when she received the stage proposal, or 2. She didn't expect to feel nothing when she finally received the Darcy proposal she'd always dreamed of. At any rate, she doesn't except Henry's offer.

Jane is anxious to reunite with Martin. When they are alone, she says that when Austenland ends, she can change her flight out of London and spend more time with Martin, in the "real" world together. He agrees.

But after Jane has packed up and is ready to leave, she has an angry encounter with Mrs. Wattlesbrook. She mentions having, to her surprise, been paired up with Henry in the end. Since she had the low level package, she hadn't expected to be romanced by one of the premium actors. Wattlesbrook scoffs that Henry was never meant for Jane. Martin was the actor she was supposed to end up with. Jane is shocked. She didn't know Martin was an actor at all. Everything he said to her was a pretense, part of the skit. Angrily she tells Mrs. Wattlesbrook that she is going to report Austenland for sexual harassment, because she is sure that she is not the first patron that Mr. Wattlesbrook has assaulted (as Henry himself acknowledged when he rescued her). Since Jane did not seem to think twice about the Wattlesbrook incident after it happened, this seems like a rather petty and plot-stretching threat on her part.

She storms off to the airport. Afraid of the business repercussions, Mrs. Wattlesbrook quickly calls Martin and tells him to meet Jane at the airport and make nice, to smooth things over. Martin is with his colleagues when he gets the call and is smug that his services are needed. He says that he's surprised that Jane didn't fall for Henry, since she seemed up for grabs for any man that came along. Henry is ready to fight Martin for disparaging Jane's honor.

They both run to the airport where Jane is getting ready to board the plane in her street clothes. She is unmoved by Martin and realizes that even his accent was fake. As for Henry, she thanks him for the adventure, even if she knows it wasn't real. Well, it wasn't really clear during the rest of the movie that she cherished her time with Henry over her time with Martin, so the "happy ending" we're being spoonfed seems especially arbitrary.

Back at home, Jane keeps up her end of the bet and immediately begins uncluttering her apartment by removing all of the Austen props. Even the Darcy cardboard cut-out is headed for the trash. I suspected that Martin was a phony all along, but then another part of me thought that maybe the story was about Jane learning to be realistic and to choose a real man over a dream date. So, I thought if she turned away from Henry to pick Martin, she would be growing up, giving up the unattainable for substance and concrete. But, nah, that turns out not to be the point of the story.

The doorbell rings and Jane expects that it's her friend, welcoming her back home, but it's actually Henry. He followed her from London because ... she forgot her scrapbook. Jane says, "you could have mailed it." Yes, he could have, he admits. If he came all this way just to ensure she wouldn't sue Mrs. Wattlesbrook, she promises him she won't. No, that's not why he's there. He wanted to tell her that nothing he said to her was a lie. He was not an actor. He's a history professor. Wattlesbrook is really his aunt and, disillusioned with life, he decided to try one of her Austen fantasies. It was his first time, just like it was Jane's. She said that she wanted to live in the "real world" and he is real. They embrace and were both ever sensible of the warmest gratitude towards the persons, er, travel agent, who, by bringing her to [Austenland], had been the means of uniting them.

Wait. Does this means that Jane won the bet with Molly after all?