Celeste and Jesse Forever Review: When Harry Left Sally

By Daniel Carlson | Film | August 17, 2012 | Comments ()

By Daniel Carlson | Film | August 17, 2012 |

The strengths and weaknesses can be traced to Jones, who co-wrote the film with writing partner Will McCormack, based on their own short-lived relationship from years before. The gimmickiness of the set-up occasionally acts as a roadblock for real storytelling, but when she's able to shove that aside, some good things shine through. Her dawning realization of the way she's treated Jesse -- like a lifeline to an old existence she's not ready to cut yet -- is handled well, and Jones is wonderfully heartbreaking in moments when she sees him moving on without her. The script's focus is more on Celeste's emotional breakdown than on the external plot, and Jones and McCormack have written some brutally honest scenes of couples wrestling with what they want and what they're willing to do to each other to get it. There's one amazingly frank fight between Celeste and Jesse in which she berates him for getting on with his own love life only to have come swinging right back: Did you think I would wait for you to go first? he asks her. In an instant, she's hit with that weird realization that comes in relationships that this being you're talking to is a whole other person, and not merely a series of obstacles or complications for you to sort or shape according to your will. The film's most potent scenes filter that mix of self-actualization and utter shittiness that make up most of your 20s, and Jones nails her performance.

The film's look is often against her, though. Directed by Lee Toland Krieger (The Vicious Kind) and shot by David Lanzenberg, the aesthetic relies too often on extreme close-ups and shaky hand-helds, as if a movie about indie-friendly L.A. relationships has to look like a Levi's ad uploaded to Vimeo. The vibe's an inconsistent one, too, as the film will just as often pivot into something grandly gorgeous (a shot of Celeste against a night sky, watching as friends dance at a wedding) or visually gaggy (a drunk and despondent Celeste coasting into frame on an inflatable pool chair). The film at times feels assembled from work by wildly different craftsmen who shared technical duties to save money, but every now and then the look and feel come together perfectly with the script. When Celeste receives a particularly devastating piece of news about the new life Jesse's putting together, she quickly shuffles to her bathroom to collect herself. She stumbles in, shaking, and the image starts out in a blur but focuses tightly on her as she leans against the wall, jabs at her cheeks to kill the tears, and attempts to bury everything she's feeling. It's a quick, quiet, perfectly pitched moment.

The film's biggest problem is, well, its fear of commitment. Jones and McCormack's shaggy script is a little too preoccupied with hitting the kind of predictable character and narrative beats they seem at other moments to want to break away from, including a forgettable subplot about Celeste's job (trend consultant at a PR firm) that doesn't do anything for the narrative but help pad it out to its already trim 91 minutes. For every idea or moment or scene that does its damnedest to subvert the standards of romantic dramas and comedies and get to the truth underneath, there are just as many that feel pasted in from every other movie in the field, from the wacky pot-dealing friend to the series of bad rebound dates. Again, it's not that these things can't feel real; it's that here, they never bother to be anything else. Celeste and Jesse Forever feels a lot like the bruised relationships it tries to chronicle: it has a good deal going for it, but it's not quite enough.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. You can also find him on Twitter.

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