We Bought a Zoo
A widowed father played by Matt Damon moves to the South Californian country and purchases a zoo with his family
On Film4: 31 Aug 6:25PM
Hopeless American romantic Jane Hayes (Keri Russell) takes a trip to English resort Austenland, hoping for a happy ending with her very own Mr Darcy
As rom-com premises go, Austenland’s set up is not bad: where we’ve seen the male version of arrested development plenty of times in films like 40 Year Old Virgin or Failure To Launch, the female version is less familiar. In Pride & Prejudice obsessive Jane Hayes (Keri Russell), we see the consequences of taking the whole “one day, I will meet Mr Darcy” thing too far, namely, that you end up with a creepy Regency nightmare of a thirty-something bedroom which sends prospective lovers screaming for the nearest exit. In a final bid to either embrace Austen-mania or exorcise it forever (it’s not 100% clear which), Jane decides to spend her last pennies on a jaunt to the titular resort in England, a weird roleplay fantasy holiday destination where coiffed actors in breeches are paid to flirt with the mostly desperate female clientele.
The problems lie mainly with what the clunky script and uninspired direction proceed to do (or not do) with this potentially interesting set up, leaving the cast marooned in a world of mugging and overacting reminiscent of the dying days of the Carry On franchise. The talented Jennifer Coolidge is reduced to pantomime dame status as her gauche try-hard lusts after various footmen and nobles, while James Callis (who you may remember as having been splendid as Bridget Jones’ friend Tom in that altogether more successful Pride & Prejudice riff) is stuck doing OTT camp mannerisms in lieu of being given any decent lines. The wonderful Bret McKenzie is landed with a poorly defined louche stable boy character who manages to raise some laughs through a couple of bits of business you suspect may have been improvised.
It’s a testament to Keri Russell that you remain vaguely on side with her protagonist, although she’s not exactly a character who makes things happen – events sort of happen around her, without really much logical development or feeling of narrative progression. It’s all oddly reminiscent of a reviled fan fiction trope: the ‘Mary Sue’ author surrogate, where a thinly disguised wish-fulfilment exercise masquerading as an “original character” has been inserted by an amateur writer into a world of pre-existing characters, all of whom tend to fall wildly in love with/become best friends with the idealised author-avatar.
There’s also a very weird bit where the lead is subject to an attempted assault by a grubby old man who lives at Austenland and is the owner’s husband. This isn’t followed up on until right at the end, when Jane suddenly asserts “there have been others, haven’t there?” and threatens to have the place shut down. This threat is then sort of forgotten about, and we’re left none the wiser as to Austenland’s fate, unless we take literally a credits sequence where all the characters are inexplicably back together at the park united in some sort of lurid fairground set piece, but presumably that’s just supposed to be a sort of Technicolor dream sequence. Or nightmare.
Enough to make you burn all your Jane Austen. For contemporary spins on Austen’s brand of sparkling comedy, stick with Clueless and Bridget Jones’s Diary.
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