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Austenland Blu-ray Review

Austenland (2013) movie poster Austenland

Theatrical Release: August 16, 2013 / Running Time: 97 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: Jerusha Hess / Writers: Shannon Hale (novel & screenplay), Jerusha Hess (screenplay)

Cast: Keri Russell (Jane Hayes/Erstwhile), JJ Fields (Mr. Henry Nobely), Bret McKenzie (Martin), Jennifer Coolidge (Miss Elizabeth Charming), James Callis (Colonel Andrews), Georgia King (Lady Amelia Heartwright), Rupert Vansittart (Mr. Wattlesbrook), Ricky Whittle (Captain George East), Jayne Seymour (Mrs. Wattlesbrook), Ayda Field (Molly), Ruben Crow (Chad), Demetri Goritsas (Jimmy), Parker Sawyers (Alexander), Sarah Niles (Delilah), Jared Hess (Travel Agent - uncredited)

Buy Austenland from Amazon.com: Blu-ray DVD Instant Video

The blurb on the front of the Austenland Blu-ray is one of the most unusual critic quotes I've seen used to promote a movie. Justine Browning of USAToday.com says, "Reminds us why Pride and Prejudice is one of the most beloved works of literature."
Of all the statements made in the more than 100 professional reviews of the movie, the studio picked a line endorsing the Jane Austen novel that colors the plot, not the movie itself or even the Shannon Hale novel on which it's based. In the studio's defense, it couldn't have been easy to find a positive remark worth printing from a source of any reputability. The back cover's quote -- "Keri Russell is Radiant." by The Village Voice's Alan Scherstuhl -- isn't much better, but at least it refers to something in the film.

Thirtysomething protagonist Jane Hayes (Russell) loves Jane Austen. Actually, her love of the English author seems limited to Pride and Prejudice's Mr. Darcy and possibly Colin Firth's portrayal of it in the BBC's 1995 miniseries of it. Hayes' house is a shrine to Austen, Darcy, and Firth, the lattermost present in cardboard standee form. Jane is ready to indulge her lifelong appreciation of these early 19th century romance novels with a trip to Austenland, a destination where for a pretty penny, guests get treated to their own Jane Austen experience.

As proprietor Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour) explains it, Austenland engages in complete immersion of the Regency era. Guests are assigned an Austenian surname, get to dress in all sorts of period costumes, and pursue a storybook romance with paid actors. Though she's emptied her life savings, Jane has only signed up for the basic Copper Level package, which excludes her from certain activities, limits her to a simple out-of-the-way bedroom, and earns her overt attitude from the catty Wattlesbrook, who gives Jane the surname "Erstwhile." Two others paying participants, including friendly, idiotic American Elizabeth "Charming" (Jennifer Coolidge), have sprung for the works in the Platinum Elite package.

In "Austenland", modern-day Jane Austen enthusiast Jane Hayes (Keri Russell) treats herself to a fantasy vacation experience inspired by Austen's romances.

Jane finds herself the odd one out, with Wattlesbrook's standoffish nephew Mr. Nobley (JJ Feild) and the flamboyant Colonel Andrews (James Callis) showing greater interest in the two blondes. Jane comes to discover a sympathetic soul in the down to earth, character-breaking stable boy Martin (Bret McKenzie), who enjoys easy listening and knows exactly how to help a horse give birth. The arrival of Captain East (Ricky Whittle) complicates the arrangements some, as the vacation unfolds with amateurish theatre, a grand ball, and subverted expectations.

Austenland marks the directorial debut of Jerusha Hess, who co-wrote Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre, and Gentlemen Broncos with her husband Jared, director of all those films. Jerusha celebrated her 23rd birthday days into the Napoleon Dynamite shoot, so she has been making movies virtually her entire adult life, not a typical route for a Kansas native and Brigham Young University alum. Launched with such promise on perhaps the most quoted and merchandised independent film of all time, the Hesses' careers have since been in decline so sharp it must make M. Night Shyamalan grateful for the status he's been able to maintain.

Ms. Hess' filmmaking is easily mistaken for her husband's, whose only credit here is as associate producer (he also gives an unbilled performance). She casts from the same places and shares her husband's taste for making prominent use of popular but affordable 1980s songs. Though she wrote the screenplay with Ms. Hale, whose 2007 novel inspired a 2012 sequel, the results are comparable to the Hesses' original films and not their endearing, overexposed debut. As a painful outing where a Flight of the Conchords member is the best part, Austenland reminds of Gentlemen Broncos, that messy, little-seen film that temporarily seemed to kill the Mormon couple's career and send them back to the Napoleon Dynamite well for a short-lived animated TV series on Fox.

Jane (Keri Russell) enjoys breaking character with down to earth farmhand Martin (Bret McKenzie). The basic Copper package includes a constantly bitchy attitude from Austenland proprietor Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour).

Naturally, this film doesn't get as gross and bizarre as Broncos, but it does serve to further widen the gap between what the Hesses find funny and what the rest of us do. Coolidge has entertained in small doses in the right parts (e.g. Click), but here she's asked to be a scene-stealer, like what Melissa McCarthy was to Bridesmaids. The in-your-face performance is obnoxious and never slightly funny, yet everyone else in the cast puts on a smile and goes along with it.
Russell is not cut out for the broad comedy she's given. She too has been a likable presence in the right role (Waitress) and earns a lifetime pass from '90s kids and millennial teens who remember her from "Mickey Mouse Club" and "Felicity." She's the right age for the part and wrong in just about every other way. Those two focal Americans get enough wrong to ensure that none of the secondary cast members, from numerous Brits to Kiwi McKenzie, can get this ship back on the right course.

Austenland faces an issue that has plagued all of the post-Napoleon Hess films: there isn't an obvious audience for it. Their comedy tastes are fairly lowbrow, yet the couple clearly doesn't have the commercial instincts to put out something you could count on making Napoleon's $45 million or Nacho Libre's now-miraculous $80 M. The comedy is too stupid to be placed in art houses and yet there is no clear alternative. It seems telling that the logo of Sony Pictures Classics, who distributed the film in limited late summer release, does not appear in its usual placements on the front cover and spine. Is the division behind so many prestige pictures and foreign films embarrassed to be associated with this? Maybe and perhaps rightfully so.

Six months after starting its insufficient 274-theater, $2.2 million run (well short of the $7.6 M production budget), Austenland finally hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, seemingly timed for Valentine's Day blind buying.

Austenland Blu-ray Disc cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

2.40:1 Widescreen
5.1 DTS-HD MA (English, French, Portuguese), Dolby Digital 5.1 (Spanish, Thai)
Subtitles: English, English for Hearing Impaired, Chinese Traditional, French, Indonesian, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish, Thai
Not Closed Captioned
Extras Subtitled in English, Chinese Traditional, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish, Thai
Release Date: February 11, 2014 / Suggested Retail Price: $19.99 (Reduced from $35.99)
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50) / Blue Keepcase with Side Snap
Also available as DVD ($30.99 $14.99 SRP) and on Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

For a brand new Sony film, Austenland looks a tad pale and slightly grainy in the Blu-ray's otherwise clean, satisfying 2.40:1 transfer. The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio does a fine job of distributing dialogue, needle drops, and everything in between. Probably overestimating the film's global appeal, the studio loads up the disc with foreign subtitles and dubs.

Bret McKenzie's entertaining superhero movie audition story has Keri Russell howling with laughter in the Cast Q & A. This "Austenland" cast shot serves as the menu image and the reverse cover artwork.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

In typical Sony Pictures Classic fashion, the Blu-ray contains a strong handful of bonus features.

First up is an audio commentary by writer/director Jerusha Hess and Twilight author (and fellow Mormon) Stephenie Meyer, one of this film's producers. Their discussion is conversational, screen-specific and girly.

They gush over men, comment on hiding Russell's pregnancy, and point out little details that amuse them.

Next comes a cast Q & A session (32:45, HD) featuring Keri Russell, Bret McKenzie, Jane Seymour, JJ Feild, James Callis, Georgia King, Ricky Whittle, and Jennifer Coolidge. They make jokes but also shed light on their attachment to this project and their thoughts on Jane Austen, in addition to sharing their most entertaining acting and audition experiences. The session is marred by bad audio coming out of some of the microphones, most noticeably Russell's.

The extras draw to close with the film's theatrical trailer (2:05, HD), which Sony Pictures Classics is always great about including.

The Blu-ray opens with a Blu-ray promo and trailers for In a World..., Inside Llewyn Davis, Blue Jasmine, I'm So Excited!, and, in a fitting bit of cross-promotion I'll assume was reciprocated, Pride and Prejudice: Keepsake Edition. All the same items play from the menu's Previews listing.

Score plays over the top menu's static cast shot. Like all Sony BDs, this one gives you the chance to resume playback and also supports placing bookmarks on the film. You're certain to want to place one at the 45:41 mark where there occurs one of cinema's most subtle and mysterious farts. I rewatched that moment multiple times and still can't determine with any certainty the intended culprit.

The unslipcovered side-snapped keepcase displays the menu image reverse artwork inside but contains no inserts.

Second billing and a Darcy-esque demeanor make JJ Feild's Henry Nobely seem like the potential right guy for Jane Hayes/Erstwhile (Keri Russell). A little Jennifer Coolidge goes a long way, but "Austenland" gives us a lot of her as the obnoxious Miss Elizabeth Charming.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Austenland adds to the Hess family's post-Napoleon Dynamite disappointments. This unfunny, tone-deaf romantic comedy doesn't deserve its connection to classic literature. It is certain to let down readers whose expectations are shaped by the subject. For that matter, the movie doesn't even deserve the artistic credibility that comes with Sony Pictures Classics distribution.

Sony's Blu-ray offers good picture and sound and a nice handful of substantial extras, but the disc falls short of a recommendation, unless you already like the movie or love the book on which it's based.

Buy Austenland from Amazon.com: Blu-ray / DVD / Instant Video

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Reviewed February 7, 2014.



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