All the gentlemen are fictional

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Keri Russell, left, is Jane Hayes and JJ Feild is Mr. Nobley pretending to be Mr. Darcy in "Austenland."

The scariest thing about Austenland is that it could be true. But being scary is usually what is expected in a horror film and not in a romantic-comedy.

An undeniable sense of desperation runs throughout Austenland. It’s not intentional, however, as the movie instead aspires only to achieve a level of light, romantic fluff. But it so constantly traffics in emotions and raw feelings, it’s inevitable that damage will come to some sensitive psyches.

Keri Russell stars as Jane Hayes, an inveterate Jane Austen lover. She proves her enthusiasm by spending her savings on a vacation at Austenland, a faux theme park of sorts that immerses the participant in a promised Jane Austen-like world. Along the way, she meets a fellow American known only by her pseudonym, Miss Elizabeth Charming, played by an overly obnoxious Jennifer Coolidge, a one-note actress set free by director Jerusha Hess to mug, talk loud and virtually ruin every scene she is in.

Once in the lush surroundings of Austenland, paid actors take parts related to Austen characters, both generically and, specifically — such as the imperious Darcy stand-in, here, Nobley (JJ Feild). From this set-up, scenes meant to be parodies seem to play out realistically.

Does Nobley-Darcy really care for Jane, or is this an act? Does Jane care for him, even though that is forbidden in this immersion experience? This ambivalence combines with a lack of any definite goal for the film, making it rely on contrivances and false encounters to keep the mood from ever becoming truly light, or romantic for that matter.

Of course, poor Jane feels confused, as she should, because she has been painted as unlucky-in-love and prone to making decisions that will end in heartache.

Shannon Hale and director Jerusha Hess’ screenplay, from Hale’s novel, moves along inconsistently, hitting only a few funny moments among the treacly romances. Austenland stretches itself thin, drawing out a seemingly main premise of promised romance even when it has nowhere to go.

The primary immersion experience also looks as stuck as the narrative, with the women sitting around knitting or indulging in some inert activity that looks false and adds little to the already slight story. On several occasions, actors stand stiffly around, mumbling lines, as though they are not sure what comes next, making individual sequences squirm-inducing.

Just throwing the name “Austen” onto the title of a romantic comedy should not guarantee that it will approximate the wit, sophistication and elegance found in a Jane Austen novel.

And Austenland never has to worry about that.MOVIE RATINGAustenland

* 1/2

Rated PG-13, 90 minutes.

Opens Friday at the Magnolia and Angelika Plano.


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