“Celeste and Jesse Forever”
Starring: Rashida Jones, Andy Samberg, Ari Graynor, Emma Roberts, Chris Messina, Rebecca Dayan, Elijah Wood, Will McCormack
Rating: R, for profanity, drug use and sexual candor
At first blush, however, the opposite seems true of the title characters in “Celeste and Jesse Forever” … and that’s the clever twist in this arch and perceptive script from Rashida Jones and Will McCormack.
Celeste (Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg) are introduced on what seems an average day. They’re bubbly, effervescent and completely at ease with each other. They enjoy many of the same artful pursuits, while cheerfully tolerating each other’s varying tastes. They finish sentences together, dissect restaurant menus in mock German accents, and share little physical rituals, from air-hugs to hilariously vulgar acts with tubes of lip gloss.
In a word, they’re cute enough to be cloying.
Unfortunately, they aren’t a couple. At least … not really.
Indeed, they’re long separated and in the final stages of divorce. But an inability to stay married hasn’t damaged their friendship, although this dichotomy falls outside the bounds of comfort for their respective best friends, Beth (Ari Graynor) and Tucker (Eric Christian Olsen), coincidentally engaged and soon to be wed.
We deduce that Celeste and Jesse once were perfectly matched, during the younger days that led to their own wedded bliss. But Celeste has matured beyond the giddy rush of carefree twentysomethingness; she has become the ambitious, workaholic co-owner of her own media consulting firm. She’s also a frequently quoted “trend analyzer” and the author of a book on same, provocatively titled “Shitegeist.”
The passive Jesse, alternatively, prefers the lackadaisical existence of an artist. He’ll blow off deadlines — even on projects for Celeste — in order to watch TV or get stoned with good buddy Skillz (McCormack), a casual pot dealer who is quite vexed by the medical marijuana clinics that are interfering with his business model.
Before long, we recognize what Beth has known all along: Although Celeste and Jesse superficially are the epitome of soul mates, their relationship is anything but healthy. He doesn’t want to move on, clearly hoping that she’ll change her mind and take him back. She can’t move on, panicked by the thought of truly losing the one guy who puts up with her.
She even lets Jesse live in the large studio in the yard behind the house they once shared together. He may as well be a goldfish in a bowl.
Jesse tries to date; Celeste doesn’t bother. She can be magnanimous about his efforts, because he invariably selects no-hopers such as the cute but deadly dull counter girl (Kate Krieger) at a local yogurt shop: clearly no threat.
Eventually, though, Jesse does slide into a serious new relationship, with Veronica (Rebecca Dayan), a woman he dated casually a few months earlier. They bump into each other again in a bookstore, and Celeste’s radar pings: This won’t be one of Jesse’s casual dates. Just like that, Celeste’s carefully constructed outer shell crumbles, and her inner shrew comes shrieking to the surface.
And we wonder how we ever could have admired her … or how Jesse ever could have fallen in love with her. Or whether she even deserves to be loved.
Jones, a personable actress with superb comic timing, has paid her dues on TV shows such as “Boston Public,” “Unhitched” and “The Office.” More recently, she has turned in small but memorable supporting performances in films such as “I Love You, Man,” “The Social Network” and “The Big Year.” She projects a perky, captivating blend of intelligence and understated sensuality; she’d definitely be the most engaging guest at a dinner party.
Based on this impressive scripting debut, she’s also a savvy writer with a perceptive ear for authentic dialogue and relationship angst.
Samberg, a longtime “Saturday Night Live” regular too frequently trolling in big-screen junk like “Hot Rod,” “What’s Your Number” and “That’s My Boy,” is a pleasant surprise here; I hope he makes wise use of this breakthrough role. We may not wholly approve of Jesse’s repeated failure to embrace responsible behavior, but we sympathize with him; he’s a nice guy trying to do the right thing. Like many of today’s twentysomethings, he simply needs to be pushed out of the nest.
Graynor, another talented young actress on a well-deserved rise, does marvelous things with her slow takes and looks of stunned disbelief, the latter often prompted by Celeste’s increasingly erratic behavior. Chris Messina, recently seen as the perplexed brother in “Ruby Sparks,” has an equally engaging role here as Paul, a guy who meets Celeste in a yoga class and tries — a bit too glibly — to kick off a relationship.
Emma Roberts delivers a strong performance as Riley, a sulky pop star-of-the-moment who has hired Celeste and Scott’s company to manage her image. At first blush, Riley seems oblivious … but she isn’t stupid, as Celeste unfairly (but typically) assumes. This particular character arc is delightful, because the two women initially loathe each other, with Riley even nailing Celeste with the insightful accusation of “contempt before investigation.”
But things change, and Riley eventually proves instrumental in Celeste’s awkward efforts to find her way back to personhood. That’s the core issue, of course: whether Celeste can rise above her self-absorbed persecution complex and become, well, likable.
Director Lee Toland Krieger paces his film well, often cleverly playing with our expectations. He also has the wisdom to resist the uber-tight close-ups that often mar this sort of story; he trusts his cast members to deliver the goods in gentler two-shots.
And I love the way co-scripters Jones and McCormack bring their narrative full circle, with some deft parallel structure in a final scene that echoes an earlier moment.
One large complaint, though: As was the case with Greta Gerwig’s character in “Lola Versus,” Jones’ Celeste spends far too much time indulging in recreational — or dispirited — drug and alcohol binging. It’s excessive to the point of medical concern, and therefore quite distracting. If this is an accurate portrayal of Generation Next, they’ll all lose their livers before turning 40.
Substance abuse issues aside, “Celeste and Jesse Forever” is engaging, frequently funny and often heartbreaking. Jones and McCormack concoct an emotional roller coaster ride with plenty of bumps, but that’s an accurate reflection of our real world. Relationships can be messy, particularly when those involved are in different places at different times.
Sometimes, sadly, love just isn’t enough.
— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com