Celeste and Jesse Forever is a movie about a distraught relationship that has no genuine reason to be distraught. It’s casually charming and performed with genuine sentiment (especially by star and co-writer Rashida Jones), but it can’t shake the nagging notion that the title sums it all up — Celeste and Jesse are two people that belong together, are cheerfully comfortable in each other’s company, but remain separated by the clash-happy whims of their screenwriters.
The film’s director, Lee Toland Krieger (The Vicious Kind), condenses the sorrow-free portion of Celeste (Jones) and Jesse’s (Andy Samberg) relationship into an opening montage, which includes breezy portraits of everything blissful couples do together — except sing along to the radio, which will of course come later. (Here’s hoping, quietly, that this movie is one of the last to join the couples-singing-together-is-cute movement. Because it’s usually not.)
When the present-day action kicks in, the two are in the midst of divorce proceedings — Jesse’s too lazy to be a longtime husband and potential father — but they still spend chunks of time with one another and, more problematically, effectively live in the same home. Their best friends, Beth (Ari Graynor) and Tucker (Eric Christian Olsen), alert them to the unhealthy nature of their arrangement, but Celeste and Jesse, clouded by love, see nothing wrong with it.
Conveniently, then, we get supporting characters determined to disturb the situation. As Celeste, a co-owner of a media analysis company, orchestrates the shelf-placement of her recently published book — the amusingly titled Shitegeist — Jesse discovers a former one-night stand, Veronica (Rebecca Dayan), in one of the adjacent aisles. Sparks are soon rekindled there, and Jesse finally finds a reason to distance himself from the pathetic practice of watching Olympic re-runs all day in Celeste’s guest house.
This news eats away at Celeste, who complains to her closest work companion, Scott (Elijah Wood, looking smart and dapper), who encourages her to start dating again herself. This she does, but with little success — until a guy named Paul, played with warmth and consideration by Chris Messina (Ruby Sparks), makes a polite pass at her one afternoon after yoga class. Unlike Jesse, Celeste isn’t willing to dive head-first into a new relationship, but it’s clear that, if she wanted to move on, Paul would be a suitable person to do that with.
Celeste and Jesse Forever, for the most part, thrives on the performance of Jones, who’s successful in creating a whip-smart character who’s intellectual fire is both her calling card and her Achilles’ heel. Ironically, however, Jones is additionally accountable for the traits that reduce the film’s impact, as her screenplay — co-authored by Will McCormack, who appears in the film as a pot dealer named “Skillz” — never quite earns its status as a piece of somber reflection.
One of the problems, I think, is that Jesse doesn’t have much of a character — while the title may suggest otherwise, this is very much Celeste’s movie, and as the story goes along, it’s hard to view Jesse as anything other than the source of Celeste’s interior struggle. And that’s unfortunate, because the casting of Andy Samberg, who’s known most prominently as a sketch-comedy goon, is an intriguing choice. But as the number of mixed-feelings confessionals grows exponentially, Samberg isn’t given enough breathing room as Jones to create a credible human being.
The movie is certainly adequate, though. It’s nice to look at, Krieger’s good at maximizing the sensitivity of an emotional beat, and there’s real value in the film’s desire to build a romantic story with a strong, textured female lead. But there’s a visible glitch in the design of dooming a relationship that we’re never convinced should be doomed in the first place, and the ensuing seriousness relies too much on the love-is-complicated excuse to fully resonate. It’s one thing to demonstrate confusion in the wake of love’s infinite obstacles. Getting a viewer to actually endure that confusion is a deeper, tougher task.
For spoiler-related discussion of Celeste and Jesse Forever, visit the Forums. All other comments can be left below.