How many times has pillow-lipped actress Jennifer Coolidge saved an otherwise awful movie? And she's built a career saving scenes in American Pie, Legally Blonde, and every David Gest — no, wait, that's Liza Minnelli's ex-husband — every Christopher Gest mockumentary. She does it yet again in Austenland, which debuted Friday afternoon at the Sundance Film Festival.
Director and co-writer Jerusha Hess (who also co-wrote Napoleon Dynamite) joked before the movie that everyone had come to see Bret McKenzie's abs, but not only did the flying Concorde not take off his shirt in the movie (sadly), it was Coolidge who got just about every laugh from the reluctant audience. The movie stars Keri Russell, her Felicity mane tamed and mousey, as Jane, a nerdy, lonely woman obsessed the Jane Austen who travels to England to spend two weeks at Austenland, a resort where all attendees must dress and behave like their in one of the Regency Era literary heroine's novels. Love awaits each female traveler thanks to the amorous attention of an actor.
But it's not Jane's story we care about, it's Miss Charming's, a fellow traveler who has more money than sense. Like just about every Coolidge character, has no idea what is appropriate in any given situation. Coolidge tries on different accents, different mannerisms, and all sorts of outlandish fabulosity to play the most charmingly self-unaware woman you would ever meet.
Don't we want a whole movie of this? Melissa McCarthy, another scene-stealer, got an Oscar nomination for Bridesmaids and is now popping up everywhere, including a lead role in Identity Theft with Jason Bateman. What will it take for Coolidge to get the same treatment? Maybe something with her and Anna Faris as a dim but enthusiastic mother/daughter team who travel to a tropical resort looking for love? (That's a free idea for all you development executives out there.) Or even just a simple comedy where she gets to be the star of the show rather than being second banana. Let's make that happen already.
As for Austenland, it's as much of a beautiful looking trifle as the resort itself. The production is astounding in terms of period dress and the performances by Russell, Coolidge, McKenzie, the dreamy JJ Feild (as Russell's love interest), and an astounding Jane Seymour – well-preserved and underused on whatever back shelf Hollywood has placed her since her medical days as Dr. Quinn – as Mrs. Wattlesbrook, the owner of Austenland. The trouble isn't with the people, but the story, which sort of goes in all directions at once and makes what should be a quick and sweet movie into something of an ambling slog. It starts out with good intentions, showing women that being obsessed with fictional romance at the expense of living their real lives is dangerous, but ends with the sort of tired rom-com tropes that it purports to be smarter and better than. We have only Coolidge to thank for it's best gags, a comment on her stunning ability to turn even the lightest line into a comedic explosion. Can't we get that for 90 minutes? Pretty please, already?
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