The catch in Celeste and Jesse Forever shows up in its first scene: On a double date with friends (Ari Graynor and Eric Christian Olsen), it turns out that Celeste (Rashida Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg), despite dwelling comfortably within a bubble of inside jokes and easy glances, are already separated and headed for divorce. The film’s focus isn’t on a standard coming together or drifting apart for its central couple, but on what it means to treat possession as a sick version of love. Celeste is the one that pushed for separation, citing everything from Jesse’s low earning potential to his lack of basic American possessions (“The father of my child will have a car,” she says), but she’s also the one who hasn’t signed the divorce papers yet. She and Jesse live in a sad limbo defined by denial, and it gives the film a bit more grit and texture than other romantic dramedies. Not all the emotions ring true, though: Celeste and Jesse have been friends since childhood, but we’re given no real reasons for their separation aside from Celeste’s vaguely worded worry, nor do we get the feeling that any real thought went into their separation. They demonstrate no anguish or remorse over the situation, which would play if they weren’t together but clunks a little when they have to still be best buds. Large parts of the movie feel like things happening to real people, but there are also plenty of moments and set-ups that feel too clearly contrived to bring about a situation instead of letting it unfold on its own. For digging deeper into relationships than most other movies in the genre, the film deserves praise.
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.