‘Austenland’ concept’s funny; approach is slack

The premise sounds ripe for the Christopher Guest comedy troupe: Let’s follow a naïve young woman on her dream vacation to an immersive, role-playing theme park that brings alive the world of Jane Austen novels. Here be proud young men and haughty dowagers, and drawing rooms with tea: a Comicon for BBC addicts.

But Guest isn’t doing these kinds of projects anymore, and the actual execution of “Austenland” falls along much more conventional lines. Our heroine is Jane (the role’s a blank, but Keri Russell does her best with it), whose life-size cardboard cut-out of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy just isn’t enough to fill out the “Pride and Prejudice” fantasy.

She arrives at Austenland at the same time as a rich lady called Elizabeth Charming — the visitors all get vaguely Austenish names — played by the irrepressible Jennifer Coolidge. I am grateful nobody repressed Coolidge, because her blowsy vocal delivery and unfiltered one-liners give “Austenland” its main source of oomph.

Once she begins mingling with the hired role-players, Jane is vaguely torn between Darcy-like Mr. Nobley (J.J. Feild) and roughhewn stablehand Martin (Bret McKenzie, of Flight of the Conchords), but the film is too slack to generate even the rudimentary suspense that comedy needs.

I did laugh, mostly at Coolidge (a veteran of the Christopher Guest company, as it happens) and the spectacle of Austenland’s puffy-sleeve actors relaxing in their downtime. But overall the movie disappoints, and even the topic of fiction fans who take their enthusiasm a little too seriously, as crystallized in the immortal words of William Shatner to the Trekkie faithful — “Get a life” — is only mildly touched on.

“Austenland” is adapted from a novel by Shannon Hale and directed by Jerusha Hess, making her helming debut after co-writing her husband Jared’s films “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Gentlemen Broncos.” A comparison is instructive: The crisp comic timing and sharply composed frames of “Napoleon Dynamite” have a lot to do with why that film is regularly hilarious, and the casual rhythm and loose visuals of Austenland are partly to blame for the movie’s inability to land all its punches.

A useful concept and a game cast aren’t enough to make classic comedy, even if you’re deploying Jennifer Coolidge in full loudmouth mode.

“Austenland” (2½ stars)

A nerdy fan (Keri Russell) of Jane Austen’s novels travels to a role-playing theme park based on the world of “Pride and Prejudice.” There are some laughs here, mostly from blowsy tourist Jennifer Coolidge, but the movie’s a little too slack to really make its comic idea come to life.

Rated: PG-13 for subject matter.

Showing: Guild 45th, Pacific Place.

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