Breaking up is hard to believe in otherwise funny, engaging ‘Celeste and Jesse Forever’
It’s a premise you could only find in the movies. A couple of hip, young thirtysomethings, Celeste and Jesse, are longtime best buds; they go everywhere together, lapse into jokey accents and game-playing, consistently crack each other up—and after six years of marriage, they’re in the process of getting a divorce.
OK, people change, but that’s not the weird part: they continue to live life joined at the hip, seeing the same friends, cracking the same jokes, enjoying themselves and each other hugely. Um, why exactly are these guys getting divorced?
That’s the big question in Celeste and Jesse Forever. The short (and obvious) answer is, to create conflict so the scriptwriters will have something to write about. Answering this question within the context of the story itself, however, is not quite so easy, and causes some problems for writers Rashida Jones and Will McCormack, who also act in the film. Still, beyond its romantic complications, Jones’ and McCormack’s script is so funny and their characters so engaging, it’s well worth suspending one’s disbelief.
Directed by Lee Toland Krieger, the film introduces pert, motivated Celeste (Jones); a borderline Type-A personality leavened with a wacky sense of humor, she’s a “trend-spotter” with an L.A. PR firm. A critic of junky pop culture (she’s just written a book on the subject called “Shitegeist”), she is nevertheless employed in the business of keeping the firm’s famous clients in the forefront of it. Jesse (Andy Samberg), her best friend since high school, and husband of six years, is a good-natured slacker with artistic leanings who would rather go catch a wave than follow up a lead on an illustrator’s job.
That’s it for conflict. (“He doesn’t even have a checking account,” Celeste complains to a girlfriend. “Or dress shoes.”) They claim they used to fight all the time, but now that divorce is pending and Jesse has moved into his studio in the backyard of their house, they’re getting along better than ever—to the point that their best friends (Ari Graynor and Eric Christian Olsen) are seriously weirded-out by their ongoing co-dependence.
Celeste’s boss (a droll Elijah Wood) and Jesse’s weed-dealing buddy, Skillz (co-scripter McCormack) urge them both to date other people and move on. Jesse is daunted at the prospect of “starting over,” and Celeste considers herself too busy, but once one of them gets set up on an impromptu date, it becomes a kind of competition, in which they both feel they have to keep up. But when one of them gets serious about someone else, everything changes, and Celeste and Jesse face the consequences of really letting go.
But because it never feels like there’s anything inherently toxic about the couple’s relationship or inevitable about their split, the writers are hard-pressed to make their choices make sense from scene to scene. (Ultimately, they have to introduce a pregnancy subplot to up the stakes, which always feels a bit forced.) Once this monkey wrench has been thrown in, however, the writers are persuasive in showing how much love, friendship, and dreams depend on timing as Celeste and Jesse struggle to adjust and grow in the same direction at the same time.
Meanwhile, the satire on pop culture is often hilarious. A horrified Celeste has to promote vacant teen pop idol Riley Banks (Emma Roberts), whose repertoire includes the song “Do It On My Face.” (“She’s like a vagina and a hair-do!” wails Celeste.) Her caustic one-liners and the deadpan goofy sweetness of Samberg’s Jesse keep things in high gear throughout. (Jones is particularly funny as Celeste turns to running, yoga, alcohol, a gigantic bong, and eating binges to fill up the hole in her life.)
Better still, scribes Jones and McCormack draw the peripheral characters with just as much sympathy and humor as the leads. Chris Messina is great as a yoga classmate Celeste tries to dismiss with a few withering remarks who turns out to be surprisingly simpatico. And even the dreaded Riley has the wit to accuse Celeste of “contempt before investigation,” before turning into an unexpected friend. Best of all, there’s no pat resolution to the story—in which respect Celeste and Jesse is refreshingly like real life.
CELESTE AND JESSE FOREVER
★★★ (out of four) Watch film trailer >>>
With Rashida Jones, Andy Samberg, Will McCormack, and Emma Roberts.
Written by Rashida Jones and Will McCormack. Directed by Lee Toland Krieger.
A Sony Classics release. Rated R. 91 minutes.