Since it's called Austenland, and since it's a romantic comedy, you probably expect it to open with "It's a truth universally acknowledged" and to wrap with one lovesick sap madly dashing after another, right up to an airport's departure gates, even though both presumably have cell phones and could just work things out like people. You wouldn't be that far off in those particulars, but as with all stories of new love, in the world and in our fictions, it's the life in the middle that counts, the hesitations and first kisses and surprise obstacles, the Oujia-like process of moving yourselves toward each other but pretending it's fate.
All that Austenland nails with uncommon spirit and wit. That rococo Pride and Prejudice-aping chatter at the opening is good, too, as it's intentionally chintzy and delivered by Jane Seymour clutching a taxidermy lamb. By my count, this is the fifth likable-to-excellent romantic comedy to open this summer, following I Give It a Year, In a World ..., The To Do List and the less comic The Spectacular Now. How much longer before the truth that's universally acknowledged is that young women and their romantic troubles are lighting up screens in ways that the mope-and-disembowel routine of that Wolverine son of a bitch just can't?
This time, the young woman is played by Keri Russell, whose easy radiance remains a pleasure even when some sequences flag — the actress is fashioned from that mystery clay that makes the true stars both ridiculously beautiful while also seeming like humble, everyday folks who could really use us rooting along from our theater seats. Russell plays the usual unmarried, just-turned-30 heroine who can't get through three scenes without someone mentioning her biological clock. She also has a best friend whose job in life is to deliver exposition through mock incredulity: "Wait, you're telling me that you're going to blah blah blah?" The twist: Russell's Jane is a geek for Jane Austen in a way that combines familiar hardcore fandom — collectibles, a trophy room, the ability to recite chapter-and-verse canonical materials — with the zeal of a bonkers Etsy artist. Her Restoration dollhouse and needlepoint throw pillows are the funniest set dressing this side of a Wes Anderson picture.
After a romantic disappointment, Jane elects to fly off to England for a week at pricey Austenland, a sort of B&B, Restoration cosplay camp and act-along dinner theater. There, she and the other guests, all women, will don sumptuous gowns, gather for tea, jaunt about the gardens and volley epithets with hunky actors playing chivalrous gents right out of Emma. Then, at the week's end, there's to be a ball — and, wouldn't you know it, a rash of impassioned proposals from these men paid to pair up with the guests. It is, in short, a parody of everything superficial in Austen and the films based on her works, a burlesque of the novels' surfaces that is to the warm, brittle heart of the books themselves what fishsticks are to fresh mahi mahi.
Jane is quickly disillusioned by Austenland and its pricey (but cheap) fantasies. She takes an immediate dislike to the actor playing her Mr. Darcy figure (JJ Feild) and instead strikes up a lively flirtation with a dashing young man (Bret McKenzie) who toils in the stables. Being a romantic comedy lead, Jane meets a surrogate BFF as soon as she arrives in London; being in a much better-than-average romantic comedy, that new friend is played by Jennifer Coolidge in something like horny toddler mode. Her Miss Charming is loud, dumb, crude, insulting and so filthy rich she gets away with anything — she's a wide-eyed, big-hearted, terrifically funny spin on the Rodney Dangerfield type. Russell, too, is strong, especially when Jane musters some resolve and takes charge of her Austen-camp role-playing in the third act. It's like watching sugar will itself into steel.
To say more about the plot would be a disservice to the film's resonant, satisfying surprises. Like I Give It a Year, this is the rare movie love story that generates suspense about who will wind up with whom; like The To Do List, its lead winds up making her own practical, self-respecting choices. And like The Spectacular Now, the ending is a bit of an audience-pleasing cop-out, a retreat into formula after 80 minutes or so of upending it.
But those upendings are memorable, the cast dishy fun, and Jerusha Hess and Shannon Hale's breeze of a script (based on Hale's novel) is smart about the allure of fictional romances. Austenland the place is built upon a Harlequin paperback's idea of love, all frills and bric-a-brac and glistening hunks who whisper impossible flattery; Austenland the movie is built on the understanding that fantasy is healthy until you elect to live in it — and that sometimes a chase to the airport isn't something you should bother with in the real world. Too bad the director and writer don't stick the landing.