Seeking to turn a convention – even if it’s a relatively new one – on its head can be a somewhat difficult task in movie making. Sometimes it can fail spectacularly, and the filmmaker can come off as mean-spirited or not willing to join in the fun. But when it’s done well, you can see both the effort, and the convention it seeks to overturn, in a new light. Rashida Jones and Will McCormack’s script for Celeste and Jesse Forever aims to do the latter, and, for the most part, succeeds.
Celeste (Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg) met and married young. They were together in high school and college, and then make a life together living in Los Angeles. But here, they diverge. Celeste has her own successful business, with all that entails. As she works, Jesse, an artist, essentially sits at home, getting high while struggling to put together a show. While they still get along swimmingly, Celeste steadily loses her patience. When the audience meets them, they’ve actually separated, though they live on the same piece of property with Jesse sleeping in their studio, and driving their friends up the wall as the couple seems to act as if nothing has happened. While Celeste actually seems fine with their current state, squashing any ideas her friends have of her “getting out there”, Jesse pines for them to be together, officially, again. But life soon intervenes, and Jesse suddenly gets very serious with another woman, and Celeste suddenly needs to reevaluate both the way she thinks about her soon-to-be-ex and her previous stance on “moving on”.
Samberg’s Jesse could be the hero of any number of recent well-regarded comedies of the Apatow school. He’s a slacker who still manages to be winning. You can understand what these two are doing together. But the story belongs to Celeste, and the movie to Jones, who’s sort of a revelation in her first real starring role. Most of Jones’ best known television work has her essentially playing straight man to other, wackier people, such as Karen Filippelli on The Office, and Ann Perkins on Parks and Recreation, but here she’s a far more three-dimensional person. Celeste is an accomplished person at a young age. She’s ambitious and able to make accurate judgments about people quickly. But she’s also not above remarkably juvenile activities befitting a junior high dance. It’s easy to see how she could both tire of Jesse and then regret the decision. One can also see how such a person, having been with one person for more than a decade, doesn’t quite know how to date, or if she’s ready to do so. In other comedies, Celeste would be either a villain or a stick-in-the-mud, the person who doesn’t quite get the sensitive slacker hero. Jones’ performance really does walk a tightrope, and she does it beautifully. Samberg, too, provides a surprising performance. As Jesse’s new circumstance really hits, one can see Samberg torn between hope for his past love to be rekindled and apprehension about whether the new one will last. It’s a real leap dramatically for a man most associated with comedy done in three-minute segments, and Samberg is up to the challenge. Ari Gaynor is also very good in nice supporting performance.
At some points, however, the story of Celeste and Jesse does get a bit too cute for its own good. Since they’ve been together for a long time, they’ve developed their own little jokes that, like in real life, get tiresome pretty quickly when you’re not really in on them. Even if the story is mostly told from Celeste’s perspective, it might help Jesse’s story to see more of him and his new love together, especially if we’re supposed to see him torn between the two of them. And Elijah Wood is tragically underserved, having to play a part that goes so far out of its way to try and not be a kind of stereotype that it actually ends up undermining those very efforts. While that’s somewhat true of the film as a whole, in Woods’ case, as well as McCormick’s own acting part, it’s a real issue.
But those are, on the whole, not significant issues. What works in Celeste and Jesse Forever are the lead performances, especially that of Jones, and its willingness to play with the conventions of both old and new school romantic comedies. If nothing else, it should herald Jones as a star, in her own right, to be watched.