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Film Review: Austenland

Austenland (2013; Directed by Jerusha Hess)

Everybody knows by now that Jane Austen’s novels are the Book of Genesis of the romantic comedy movie genre. There’s a whole lot more to her work, of course. I could ask you to step into a third-year English Lit lecture room to hear all about how the Regency-era novelist wrote masterfully witty prose full of acerbic commentary on social habits and mores and penetrating observations on human nature. I could go on about how Jane Austen is a satirist, and one of most important novelists in the English language. An artist of the highest order! She’s not just an early 1800s spinster Nora Ephron, people! Please stop looking at Colin Firth’s smoulder and listen to what I’m saying!

Many Austen fans know all of this, but many more seem to skew towards the “perfect romance” side of her appeal (even if her romances are anything but perfect, and often run towards the pragmatic). I bristle at the phrase “chick flick”, and not just as a cisgendered male; plenty of women find the conventional romantic comedy construction to be hokey and predictable, if not outright retrograde in its gender role assumptions and insidiously toxic in its psychological implications. Modern screen adaptations of Jane Austen novels often focus on historical details and don’t necessarily lean into the nostalgic meaning of “romance”, although the standard approach of removing Austen’s cutting narration in a visual medium cannot help but privilege the stories’ matchmaking sincerity over the author’s contextual ironism (although the better ones manage to preserve it, with visual wit or with imaginative time-period recontextualization).

But there has always been and always will be a portion of their female audiences who yearn for the polite, complexly mannered, prudishly rule-bound, and anachronistic portrait of courtship in Austen’s era as a “simpler” past ideal, a fantasy world of chivalrous, moral gentlemen and clever, sensible ladies from a rosier time before the fraught relationship politics of our age. To be entirely fair, contemporary women who must constantly tiptoe around anxieties of rape and violence and online dating and the multilayered pathological traps of toxic masculinity in their personal lives can’t really be blamed for fantasy-lusting after a figure like Pride & Prejudice‘s Mr. Darcy in their free time, even if this particular misapprehended prelapsarian male ideal is a rude and privileged snob who consistently negs the object of his eventual affection, who is of course the proxy figure for the reader/audience. The essential narrative structure of the Hollywood romantic comedy – woman and man meet cute, they get off on the wrong foot because she’s insecure and he’s a dickhole, but with further acquaintance their good qualities come to the fore and they fall in love and marry and live happily ever after – is after all also the narrative structure of Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, when reduced to the absolute, nuance-stripped barebones of the Elizabeth Bennett/Darcy plot and without the contrasting context of the novel’s other characters and relationships.

This is probably far too much over-intellectualized preamble for the relatively light and insubstantial movie that is ultimately under discussion, but all of it is important background context for Austenland. Based on Shannon Hale’s 2007 novel of the same name and co-written by Hale and director Jerusha Hess, Austenland is about a 30-something modern woman named Jane Hayes (Keri Russell) who got into Jane Austen’s writing (and of course the 1995 BBC Pride & Prejudice miniseries featuring the aforementioned Firth as Mr. Darcy, the focal point for many a similar fangirl mania) as an awkward teen and never really outgrew her obsession into adulthood, to the detriment of the health of her love life. Jane learns about an immersive Austen-themed resort at a country manor house in England, and pours her life savings into a dream trip to attend it, albeit at the lowest budget price point known as the “copper” package.

At the airport, Jane meets and quickly befriends a fellow American attendee, a wealthy, horny, bubbleheaded, big-talking blonde on the full-price “platinum” experience known only by her resort-only character name, Elizabeth Charming (if this character description does not immediately suggest the inimitable comic actress who plays her, Jennifer Coolidge, I have not done my job right). The two ladies are picked up by Kiwi chauffeur Martin (Bret McKenzie), and he and Jane hit it off with ironic batter before they even arrive at Austenland. Whisked brusquely through orientation by the snobbish resort operator Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour, whose real-life sister plays the maid who shadows her constantly), Jane proceeds to spend the week at a sumptuous historic house (actually West Wycombe Park in Buckinghamshire) in period garb and without modern amenities, alongside Miss Charming and another female guest (Georgia King), where they are pretend-romanced (with no touching, per strict Regency mores) during a series of aristocratic Regency activities by a trio of male actors playing upper-crust gentlemen: foppish Colonel Andrews (James Callis), West Indian beefcake (and former soap star) Captain George East (Ricky Whittle), and the sour, Darcy-esque Mr. Henry Nobley (JJ Feild, acting as Jude Law’s Non-Union Mid-Atlantic Equivalent but also making a surprisingly good Darcy proxy). Made somewhat uncomfortable by the whole charade in a way she didn’t anticipate, Jane becomes close with the seemingly down-to-earth Martin, another actor playing a servant, although Mr. Nobley begins to warm to her as well, setting up the inevitable last-act rom-com choice of lover (not a convention that we can lay entirely at the feet of Jane Austen, mind you).

There’s actually some wry cleverness to Hale’s construction of Austenland that serves as layered meta-commentary on Austen’s work (especially the hegemonic Pride & Prejudice), on Austenite pop culture and fandom, and on the counterproductive pretenses of courtship and relationships both in 1813 and in 2013. As mentioned, Jane’s romantic throughline with Nobley mirrors that of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy, and, when contrasted with what appear to be more natural and off-book interactions with Martin, provide a fairly superficial but entirely consistent thematic exploration of the romantic minefield of fantasy vs. reality. Jane has been living an adolescent romantic fantasy, Austenland is at pains to make clear, and ironically her trip to the immersive Regency romance resort grounded in that fantasy is just what she needed to disillusion her and come to live in the real world. Perhaps there’s a buried implication in this dichotomy about the nature of the popular fantasy-romance profile of Austen adaptations and the more rounded and realistic social portraits of the original novels, but it’s left mostly buried. Hale and Hess are, however, skilled at maintaining relevant pretenses and then pulling them back in consequential succession in a manner that registers strongly as key steps in Jane’s character arc.

Russell is vital to making this progression work. Austenland premiered at Sundance a mere twelve days before The Americans aired its pilot episode in January 2013, and this movie is redolent of Russell’s Felicity-hangover career period of girl-next-door roles, before her lead role in the ambiguous and often harrowing FX spy drama shifted perceptions of her as an actress. She’s imperceptibly good at making Jane likable and relatable but never annoying or precious, but it’s clear that she’s straining at the bit for something more worthy of her talents as well. Perhaps her director can relate: Jerusha Hess was, with her co-directing husband Jared, once a hot commodity in semi-indie American comedy, after their quirky micro-budget deadpan comedy Napoleon Dynamite became a sleeper hit in 2004 and its modestly-budgeted Jack Black-fronted luchadore follow-up Nacho Libre just missed out on $100 million in box office grosses. But then came the deeply weird and audience-befuddling Gentlemen Broncos and the Hesses became direct-to-video mainstays, which was possibly always a predictable result for squeaky-clean Mormon filmmakers working in a genre usually pitched at sarcastic and ribald young-adult male stoners.

Hess is absolutely a talented filmmaker (I will defend Napoleon Dynamite‘s hilarity to anyone, anywhere, anytime), and the gentler content and conservative sexuality of period-piece costume romances (which Austenland technically isn’t, although it has the production values of one) is a decent conduit for those talents, channeled as they are by her religious ethics (her husband worked on a modern-day Mormonist version of Pride & Prejudice, which is wild to imagine but probably actually pretty dull in reality). Austenland is well-made, even if it failed to make back even its tiny $7.6 million budget at the box office (it was produced by Twilight author and fellow Latter-day Saint Stephenie Meyer, who can well afford to light a lot more money than that on fire). Jerusha Hess, as she did in her films with her husband, is fond of and very good at communicating comedic and character detail through cluttered, sight-gag-filled production design; although her production designer James Merifield has a specialty in British period dramas that serves Austenland well in parodically approximating the look of the BBC literary miniseries, Hess squeezes in her preferred aesthetic in the fanciful re-created drawing-room froofery of Jane’s apartment design (shelves with row-upon-row of decorative plates), the flimsy surface-level rusticness of Martin’s faux groundskeeper’s shack (he’s got a modern stereo system in the corner, covered with hay and playing sad-bastard indie rock), and the “backstage” shared relaxation poolside space of the resort’s off-duty actors, a mix of chintzy tropical and English tourist leftover decor, fake-tanned footmen, and a flat-screen TV airing Captain East’s ever-shirtless soaps episodes.

Austenland is often pretty funny, to a large extent because Coolidge’s natural improvisational tendencies (honed in Christopher Guest’s ensemble improv comedies like Best in Show and A Mighty Wind) are unleashed to frequently hilarious effect (complimented on her “beauteous skin”, Charming blurts out that it must be because “late at night when I’m all alone, I put my face in the fire!”). Hess apparently had no choice in the matter, as Coolidge was unable to learn the script and thus had to be set loose. McKenzie drops some deadpan jokes with skill (his Flight of the Conchords co-star Jemaine Clement was in Gentlemen Broncos and even more obscure later Hesses movies), King (a veteran of period dramas) has a couple of inspired kooky moments, and I chuckled at the broad stylings of Callis and Whittle once or twice, too.

Indeed, the comedic loopiness often overwhelms the story and character beats, as during late scenes of a theatrical and a grand ball. Indeed, the screenplay by Hale and Hess is maybe a bit too intricate a foundation in its layering of detail and thematic ideas to support the weight of the comic abandon that ensues. Austenland rushes into the freewheeling wackiness of many semi-improv, throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks American comedies, right down to its silly cast-singalong vignette over the end credits to Nelly’s goofy-sexy club jam “Hot in Herre”, which Jane played with comic anachronism at the resort’s piano in an earlier scene, as it was the only song she knows how to play (honestly, this semi-music-video is one of the best moments in the movie even if it’s not “in” the movie proper, especially with a clearly hungry-to-impress Russell vamping with her best Lip Sync Battle micro-performance).

But Austenland is constructed like a screenplay-first romantic comedy, albeit a modestly meta one, with a carefully laid-down structure. The incongruity between this nature and its improv-vintage comedic wildness is never quite resolved, and it leads to an uneven final product. This unevenness and insubstantiality extends to Austenland‘s subversion of romantic comedy tropes, which play out rather like slightly clever reproductions of them instead, as the movie fails to choose one path and walk it with confidence. It’s stuck between the more biting literary profile of Jane Austen’s work and the popular romantic-comedy legacy of it, and this little movie, silly and smart in phases but never entwining the two into a stronger fabric, isn’t about to tackle the resolution of that dichotomy and wouldn’t have much success if it dared to try. Austenland is a copper package visit, and it feels at times like it could have been platinum.

Categories: Film, Literature, Reviews

Film Review: Hustlers

Hustlers (2019; Directed by Lorene Scafaria)

“Doesn’t money make you horny?” seasoned veteran exotic dancer Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) purrs to tentative new girl Destiny (Constance Wu) upon their first meeting on the floor of a Manhattan strip club. Destiny (and the audience) has just watched Ramona make a stunning entrance, bringing the house down with a pole-dance routine to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” (foreshadowing!) in front of a light-wall of violet bulbs that leaves the strip-club stage strewn with paper cash. It’s an indelible introduction to the core themes and ideas of Hustlers. Writer/director Lorene Scafaria’s swaggeringly entertaining and doggedly substantial crime dramedy about a cadre of strippers who drug and swindle a succession of Wall Street bankers and traders to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars is a movie about the fundamental intersection of capital and sex, the tessellating forces of greed and lust, and the purely amoral transactional nature of American capitalism. It’s about a society and economy where money makes people horny, and the consequences of a cutthroat competition for the seemingly arbitrary expanding and contracting pool of that money – the eternally necessary hustle – being driven on a primal level by those animal urges.

And here you thought from the trailers that it was a just cock-tease heist movie full of sexy strippers! It’s not not that, but it’s also something even sexier: a trenchant social critique. Pull out your cash clips and get ready to toss those bills, gentlemen, because we’re going to talk about exchange value!

Destiny is not entirely fresh to the exotic dancing realm when she meets Ramona in 2007, but she is a newcomer at the club in question, New York City’s Moves, and isn’t sure how to fit in with the girls and pitch her wares to its high-powered Wall Street clientele. Ramona becomes her mentor and best friend, a pragmatic fount of penetrating advice and insightful street-level philosophy on how to maximize her earning potential in this snakepit of desire and wealth (“Are you an investor in this place?” she chides Destiny when she buys a drink at the club’s bar. “Let the guys get fucked up.”). Destiny is soon raking in the cash with Ramona’s guidance (despite the cuts of her profits owed to various male figures in the club hierarchy), spending lavishly and bonding with the sorority of dancers at Moves, including Annabelle (Lili Reinhart), Mercedes (Keke Palmer), and more minor characters like Liz and Diamond (cameos from pop stars Lizzo and Cardi B, respectively, the latter having actually worked as a stripper in her pre-fame days). Destiny (her real name is Dorothy, like The Wizard of Oz heroine adventuring in a strange world of fantasy and artifice) very much needs the money, as she lives with and supports her grandmother (Wai Ching Ho), having been abandoned as a child by her immigrant mother (leading to a central sense of emotional insecurity), and soon enough has a daughter of her own (Ramona is also a single mother, a deciding factor in their bond), although the ne’er-do-well father is soon out of their lives.

The apex of the times of plenty at Moves is a sequence featuring another pop star cameo, R&B star (and Lopez’s fellow one-time network-TV talent show judge) Usher, whose appearance sparks a joyful explosion of spontaneous release, all of the club’s women dancing for him on the stage in indulgent slow-motion. The good times do not last, however, as the 2007-2008 financial crisis hits and greatly reduces the gusher of easy money spurting from the once-deep pockets of Wall Street’s investment vultures (interstitial news reports from the time bemoan the worst economic recession since the Great Depression, a bit too real to watch now that we’re facing an even worse one barely more than a decade later). Destiny and Ramona each leave off stripping and fall out of touch as they struggle to support themselves in more straight-edged and respectable sectors of the contracted economy: Destiny ineffectually pretends that her dancing was actually bartending in an interview for a high-end retail job, while Ramona is frustrated by a clueless male manager who won’t let her off earlier to pick up her daughter from school.

Returning very reluctantly to a greatly changed Moves full of Russian immigrants willing to race each other to the bottom for paid sexual favours to customers, a discouraged Destiny crosses paths with Ramona again and becomes inculcated in the aforementioned drug-and-swindle scheme alongside Annabelle and Mercedes, slipping a mix of ketamine and MDMA (one of the movie’s funniest scenes shows them tweaking the formula and waking up on the kitchen floor after a taste-test) into the drinks of unsuspecting and horny businessmen and traders and then surreptitiously running up the men’s credit cards while partying at the club. Expanding their hustle and their network of collaborators along with their profits, Destiny and Ramona become the matriarchs of a loose family of women bonded by the exploitation of their exploiters (more on that in a moment), at least until their criminality inevitably brings the unavoidable personal and legal consequences.

Scafaria frames Destiny’s narrative through intercut scenes of her retrospective interview in 2014 with reporter Elizabeth (Julia Stiles), ostensibly for a fictional version of the 2015 New York magazine article by Jessica Pressler upon which the movie is based and which gets at the ambiguous and hypocritical meanings of the story with more thoughtfulness than Hustlers affords. This movie is a lean and cleverly ferocious animal, predating with relish on slow and fat themes concerning wealth, sex, gender power inequalities, and criminal enterprise as capitalist acquisition simply by other means, no more or less moral despite being very much less legal. Without question, it is deeply indebted to the style and thematic content of the Mafia films of Martin Scorsese; his fellow Italian-American Scafaria pays homage with the first shot of the film, an immersive one-shot long take following Destiny and the rest of the dancers from their dressing room down service hallways and across the neon-lit floor of the club that echoes numerous Scorsese oners, most notably and immediately obvious the Copacabana long take from Goodfellas.

Hustlers also references and recontextualizes the construction of Scorsese’s mob movies via gender inversion. The film depicts female-dominated spaces in which men serve either as sources of capital or leeches of their own hard-won capital, the reverse of the smotheringly homosocial world of Scorsese’s male criminals, with their patriarchal pursuit of capital and status interrupted by occasional demanding female anchors in the form of wives and daughters and mistresses. It’s not feminist, exactly, as all of the stripper characters are too hopelessly immersed in the tumult of mutual capitalist exploitation to care a whit for liberation, solidarity, or gender equality. Scafaria revels in scenes of female togetherness and bonding like a joyful Christmas sequence at the height of success of their drug-and-pump scheme, but this is not an entirely unified realm of uplifting sisterhood; Ramona and Destiny fall out a few times, and furthermore the interactions between Destiny and Elizabeth display cleavages of class and education that drive distrust and conflict, as does the late-film split over Dawn (Madeline Brewer), a reckless junkie recruited to join their schemes by a protective Ramona but perceptively viewed as a liability by Destiny (leading to one of the script’s bluntest but funniest zingers: “We’re breaking the law here. We don’t wanna work with criminals.”)

But Scafaria also finds it inherently romantic that sexualized female labourers subject to the most blatant male gaze brazenly swindled the swindlers, and Hustlers echoes some of the criticism of the avaricious perfidy of financial elites delved into more deeply and procedurally by a film like The Big Short (also produced by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay), albeit in a limited and targeted fashion reflective of media traditions of neutralization of radical political ideas, known as recuperation. Lopez (as much a creature of capitalist processes as any other enormously famous person, tonally spurrious claims to working-class authenticity notwithstanding) megaphones a few lines as Ramona criticizing Wall Street’s exploitation of Main Street and the lack of consequences for this exploitation, although Lopez’s performance (which is very good in a pure-movie-star way and, although hardly great, no less Oscar-worthy than, say, Brad Pitt operating in the same mode in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) is nuanced and perceptive enough to register that this is less principled political grandstanding than self-serving moral justification for her actions. Scafaria is careful to include one male client who is milked for thousands and confronts Destiny with the real pain and difficulties for himself and those close to him caused by being robbed. This is not a victimless crime, whatever Ramona tells herself and her compatriots.

One of Ramona’s macro-truisms resonates much more deeply, and serves as the thesis statement of Hustlers. “This city, this whole country, is a strip club,” she opines. “You’ve got people tossing the money, and people doing the dance.” These words cut deep down to the transactional performativity of capitalist exchange value in America, and the seedy symbiosis of greed and lust that underlies it. Hustlers is doubtful about the purity of feminist solidarity and recognizes the superficial influences of socialist and anti-capitalist ideation in the national polity, but it’s one of the most perceptive and viscerally effective recent films in terms of the depiction of the wages of capitalist competition, especially when contrasting boom times and recessions. When the economy contracts, the ability of strippers like Destiny and Ramona to earn a robust income through skilled exhibition of their sexualized bodies while maintaining some measure of bodily autonomy contracts with it. Throttled flow of wealth sparks increases labour competition from abroad (ie. the Russian women at Moves), whose entrance into the labour pool drives down wages (by capitalist design, of course) while escalating the compromises required of labour to earn a living income (ie. $300 blowjobs).

The dancers’ fraud and theft is driven by these straitened circumstances; crime stems from economic desperation. But like the wider crime film genre and the mobster movies defined by Martin Scorsese’s work above all, Hustlers argues, or at least posits aloud, that there isn’t a meaningful moral distinction between the theft and fraud that Destiny, Ramona, and their collaborators engage in and the theft and fraud perpetrated on millions of Americans by Wall Street investment banks, nor is there a difference between the hedonistic spending habits on both sides of this particular coin either. There is a distinction of degree and amount, certainly, to the great advantage of the elite. Capitalism is the common denominator, and in the contemporary American economy, everyone has a hand in each other’s pockets (or under each other’s g-strings, as the case may be). It’s a competition at all times, and the winner is the one whose hand emerges from the other’s pocket with a greater share of the booty (pun very much intended). In the world of Hustlers, money is the ultimate turn-on, whether you’re tossing it or dancing for it.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews