Lots of comedies in the last year or so have focused on whether two people can be involved sexually without being involved romantically. “Celeste and Jesse Forever” asks if two people who were involved sexually can be involved platonically. Both beat the dead horse of “complicated” relationships in film, but what’s nice about “Celeste and Jesse” is that it never loses its comic edge in spite of melodrama.
Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg star as the titular couple in the process of a divorce, but because they spent so long as best friends, they have no concept of needing to draw boundaries.
It’s a tough sell early on, that two people could go through a divorce yet essentially live together and spend time together in a somewhat intimate fashion. Jones, who co-wrote the script with Will McCormack (who has a supporting role), chooses to make Celeste and Jesse opposites in terms of professional status (he’s a slacker artist, she’s a big-deal trend forecaster) in order to justify why, despite their fabulous on-screen chemistry, they’re not meant to stay married. It takes a bit of story wizardry, namely physical obstacles that force them apart, but somehow it makes sense, probably because Jones and Samberg are so likable.
The story then plays out like the emotional roller coaster of a relationship between two people who feel one thing but do another. It’s exhausting, at times, as a third-party observer, to watch them fall in and out of the same predictable problems. A few scenes will certainly elicit shouts at the screen of “just get back together already!” or “stop screwing around and end it!” — depending on the scene.
Naturally, each character has his and her attempts to rebound by going on dates with other people and trying new relationships. To this point we’ve seen enough of the formula to know how that part of the story goes: two former lovers get mad at each other, the one who didn’t really want to split rebounds first, the other says they’re really happy for that person but secretly can’t stand it, etc. That’s all here in “Celeste and Jesse Forever.”
So what’s the saving grace? Something that makes “Celeste and Jesse” stand out from the pack? The answer is the simple refusal to ever take itself too seriously. Without it, the film would likely devolve into a train wreck of predictable moments.
In spite of the absurd tear count in the movie, Celeste is never shy about cracking a joke, nor the script afraid go out on a limb with something more extreme and less believable. This, in a movie that so fiercely tries to capture the gray area in relationships in a truthful way. Humor keeps the film in check, especially for us, who would otherwise happily chop up the script and divide the pieces into piles marked “realistic” and “unrealistic.” The quirkier tone and moments maintain the soft illusion of a more fantastical real-life relationship story.
Director Lee Toland Krieger nicely flows back and forth between both up-close-and-personal realism and more standard-order comedy camera-work. On a few occasions he makes bold choices, some that work, some that backfire, but the comic and dramatic moments almost never butt heads.
Life in Los Angeles is, for many, a fantasy of a sort, and “Celeste and Jesse” could easily be deemed a story that could “only happen in L.A.” In addition to the frozen yogurt and the exposure of the fraud that is trendy exercise, Celeste works in the entertainment industry and post-Jesse she’s set up on all these dates with successful creative people. Scenes take place in all kinds of exotic clubs, so much of the context surrounding these characters oozes with a superficiality that makes the film both great and disturbing.
A little more troubling is the legit problem that Jesse disappears in large chunks of this film. There’s a reason Celeste comes first in the billing, and that’s because the movie only shows intimate moments featuring her (and the ones she shares with Jesse). Samberg doesn’t get much of a chance to prove himself as a talent that can go below the surface. The script treats Jesse like a child, kind of like the way Celeste sees him. There’s artist value to this decision, but the moments between the two of them are too lopsided in our minds. Great romance movies get you charged up because you feel a certain way about both characters, and in this film we only really feel what Celeste feels.
There’s something special in “Celeste and Jesse,” however, some rare ability to see the humor in the personally tragic, the potential for levity and irony in any situation. The emotional place that these two best friends arrive at in the end might not be as satisfying as that in a strong romance or rom-com, nor as poetic as in a tragedy, but with its playful disposition, it manages to carve out a place that’s different, one that stands out from the pack just enough.
Celeste and Jesse Forever
Directed by Lee Toland Krieger
Written by Rashida Jones and Will McCormack
Starring: Rashida Jones, Andy Samberg