Relief has arrived for those missing the halcyon days of the mid-1990s, which saw a new Jane Austen adaptation every couple of months, and for those who haven’t had a fix since the Keira Knightley version of Pride & Prejudice. Though the droll hipster rom-com Celeste and Jesse Forever doesn’t literally use any of the author’s novels as a blueprint, Celeste is out of the mold of Austen’s heroine Emma: self-assured (maybe too much so), perceptive, judgmental towards all and sundry, except herself. The screenplay by star Rashida Jones and Will McCormack deftly sets up Celeste for a fall from grace. It’s a loose and coy variation of an Austen plot, not a wink-wink modernization like 1995’s Clueless, which spearheaded the Austen movie revival nearly 20 years ago.
Where Regency England’s status symbols are class and family background, occupation, income, and education are tantamount in contemporary Los Angeles, where Ivy League-grad Celeste has the rarefied occupation of a trend forecaster. Her husband of six years and soon-to-be ex, Jesse (Andy Samberg), is an unemployed and perpetual artist-in-the-making. They’ve been best friends since high school, and are a little too pleased with themselves; you either get their inside jokes and insular banter or you’re left behind. She glibly explains the split to a colleague: Jesse doesn’t have a job—or dress shoes. So far, the break-up has been angst free—for her, at least—and she assumes she’ll be the first to move on. Even a drunken hookup with Jessie doesn’t deter her from her course of action. She’d rather be right than happy.
There’s also a stand-in for Emma’s seemingly unsophisticated Harriet Smith, an unlikely voice of common sense in the form of a blond pop tart, Riley Banks (Emma Roberts). No shrinking violet, she’s a warbler of derivative, vacuous dance music, and a new client of Celeste’s media consulting firm. (A “vagina in a hairdo,” Celeste calls her.) And there’s the George Knightley figure. Finally, Chris Messina has a romantic (quasi-)leading role, which allows him to be charming, goofy, and sexy. Often he’s cast as the stuff-shirt boyfriend in the background (Vicky Christina Barcelona) or restrained in very low-key indies (Monogamy or The Great Mechanical Man). Now he has loosened up. However, the script offers the biggest departure for Andy Samberg, who may join Kristen Wiig as the latest Saturday Night Live veteran equally at home with dramatic material. Most crucially, the rapport between Celeste and Jesse has an effortlessness that hasn’t often been seen this summer. The film doesn’t strain in justifying their relationship, unlike the recent oddball pairings of Steve Carell and Keira Knightley in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (awkward) or Aubrey Plaza and Mark Duplass in Safety Not Guaranteed (you still feel Plaza could do better.)
However, some of the banter wouldn’t rate on a Thursday night NBC sitcom. The stoner hip-hop spiel of Jesse’s best friend, Skillz (co-writer McCormack), would have worked better in smaller doses—has the white geek-seeking-street cred replaced the wacky neighbor? There should also be a moratorium on easy targets like California health food trends. Annie Hall got away with it, but that was in 1977. Another flabby running joke is the inability of Celeste’s straitlaced Gay Best Friend (Elijah Wood) to deliver the pithy quip. Having the characters acknowledge he’s out of his league doesn’t make it funnier.
Yet other recent rom-coms have taken a safer, and blander, route with their leading ladies. In Lola Versus, Greta Gerwig tries to please others, even when she’s acting childish and selfishly. Celeste could care less. She’s instinctually prone to condescending and snap judgments, and the script takes the risk in making her unlikable. Samberg’s Jesse is by far more needy, and perhaps because of that, more sympathetic. We want the pie-in-the-face moments, and the script figurative splatters them on Celeste, but never completely humiliates her. She has some dignity intact. Barely.