There aren’t too many movies I have seen that I have immediately adored. Loved, yes, but not adored. I’m not exactly sure where the distinction between the two reactions lies but I can say with certainty that I adore Austenland, which begins its gradual nationwide release today. I plan to see it again at the earliest opportunity.
The film is directed and co-adapted from Shannon Hale’s novel by Jerusha Hess, who with her husband Jared previously wrote 2004’s Napoleon Dynamite. Quirkiness is, therefore, to be expected in this spoof of all things related to the works of early-19th century novelist Jane Austen, the numerous films based on her books, and more recent examples of “chick lit” romantic fiction (its telling that the movie is produced by Twilight creator Stephenie Meyer). However, Austenland is more accessible than anything else in the Hess oeuvre, which also includes Nacho Libre and Gentlemen Broncos. Jerusha even refers to her and her husband’s previous films as “weird and testicular” in Austenland’s press notes.
An initially de-glammed Keri Russell (currently seen on the small screen as an undercover Soviet agent in The Americans) heads the cast as Jane, a lonely single woman so obsessed with Austen’s vision of idealized Regency-era love that her bed’s headboard reads “Darcy was Here.” This nocturnal homage to the aloof but swoon-inducing hero of Pride and Prejudice concisely sums up Jane’s longing, which in turn compels her to save up enough money to afford an economy-level trip to Austenland. Located outside London and billed as “the world’s only immersive Austen experience,” the resort is lorded over by Mrs. Wattlesbrook (a game, still beautiful Jane Seymour) and populated with actors hired to incarnate archetypes from Austen’s various novels. Confusion related to issues of class, social standing and romance ensues, also in keeping with the original literary blueprint.
Austenland’s entire cast is terrific. In addition to Russell, the always hilarious Jennifer Coolidge plays a fellow tourist dubbed “Miss Elizabeth Charming,” Georgia King of TV’s short-lived The New Normal and the current horror spoof Cockneys vs. Zombies assays “Lady Amelia Heartwright” and James Callis, so memorable as Baltar in the Battlestar Galactica revival, serves as the comically gallant “Colonel Andrews.” A trio of attractive men whom Jane discovers vying for her affections is played by JJ Feild (Captain America: The First Avenger), Bret McKenzie (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey) and Ricky Whittle (well known in England as gay character David Richards on the BBC’s Holby City).
I found Austenland hilariously romantic… or should that be romantically hilarious? It is the most purely enjoyable and, yes, adorable movie I’ve seen all year so far. Be sure to remain through the film’s end credits for further amusement.
Also in a romantic but decidedly less comedic vein is Rodney Evans’ new film, The Happy Sad (which opens today in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco). With its biracial, bisexual quartet of primary characters, I’ve been tickling myself thinking it should have been titled Bi Bi Birdie. Evans, who previously made the acclaimed gay drama Brother to Brother, here adapts Ken Urban’s play wherein a black gay couple (Leroy McClain and Gayby’s cute Charlie Barnett) and a seemingly straight white couple (Cameron Scoggins and Sorel Carradine) confront all manner of sexual and relational entanglements.
Despite a fairly obvious metaphor that matters of sexuality are far from “black and white,” the film is refreshing in its lack of racial politics. The gay couple doesn’t have to be African-American, and the issues at hand would likely remain the same if the male-female pair was also comprised of one or two black actors. Unfortunately, the chief issues of fidelity, honesty and commitment explored are routine and little new light is shed on them by The Happy Sad. The script also contains a pointless subplot about a failing stand-up comic friend of the woman. Despite very good performances by the lead cast members, with particularly nice chemistry between McClain and Barnett, the movie falls short.
The Happy Sad: B-
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.