Celeste and Jesse Forever, written by star Rashida Jones with co-writer Will McCormack, is a movie that, just like it’s leads, struggles to define what it wants out of life. It purports to be a self-aware twist on the typical emotional journey, most notably by starting at the end: leads Celeste (Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg) already separated, their divorce pending and their lives drifting in separate directions. On paper, anyway. In reality, they’re still incredibly infatuated with each other, hanging around and making the same dumb jokes they undoubtedly made when they first met and as they were actually in love. Their friends are disgusted, their relationship reeks of desperate fragility as neither is ready to let the other go.
It’s obvious to everyone but Celeste and Jesse that they still have feelings for each other, but both of them are determined not to admit it to the other. Jesse, drifting through life without direction, is living in the old garage that they had converted into a studio. Celeste, career-driven, author of a book and founder of an advertising company, is ready for a life that’s more focused and grounded than what Jesse represents. So they’re both very clear on why they’re getting divorced, it’s just that when they end up in the same room it starts to feel ambiguous as to why any of those things actually matter when they connect like so few people do.
But real life intrudes, as it so often does, and soon Jesse’s finding himself wrapped up in a relationship that he stumbled into, leaving the strange thing he has with Celeste for this new life. The movie, then, mostly follows Celeste as she learns to cope with the jealousy of this sudden interruption to their gradual parting, and the feelings of loss and loneliness that she doesn’t really know how to engage with or work on in anything resembling a healthy way.
The movie is mostly charming and low key, worried more about feeling real than it is about poignant moments of drama. So while there are laughs, none of them are huge. And while there are problems, none of them are earth-shattering. There is a general sense of quiet to the movie, of these people going about their lives mostly through inertia. Samberg and Jones have a surprising amount of chemistry, and when they riff on dumb things its with the truth of people who genuinely like to hang around each other. It’s that relationship, and that chemistry, that carries a lot of the movie, because we want to see these people hang out and happy because they deserve it and they’re funny when they do.
It’s not like the surrounding cast is bad, either. Special mention has to go to Elijah Wood, who is settling into his future career of a character actor well, and Emma Roberts, who plays a Ke$ha style pop star that Celeste ends up working the account for. She’s young and lost and absolutely disgusted at how weak Celeste seems a decade later, but the two of them have a relationship born out of antagonism and a sort of lifestyle competitiveness that ends up feeling really genuine as the movie moves deeper into Celeste’s reactions to the end of her relationship. Some of the best, most touching scenes are these two women struggling to relate to share something of their empathy for each other’s situation, and Emma Roberts stands out as someone who is still surprising when she’s given the right role to shine in.
That said, when the movie gets into deeper statements about what it means to want things that aren’t real anymore or the desire for an ideal, the movie never really broaches into new territory. The comedy parts of the story feel very Young Adult inspired, with adults who should know better slowly unravelling until they reach some sort of point of truth. The drama, though, manages to be a pale comparison to this summer’s Take This Waltz, which covers the same ground and actually risks more in pushing the characters into more dangerous places. Not that it’s bad that this movie doesn’t go there, but it feels a little too cozy to think that anything bad would ever happen to these characters, and that lack of tension means that more time is spent just enjoying the flow than investing in the problems.
Which isn’t bad, necessarily, just a different set of priorities. And honestly, to have a movie that engages in the inner life of a lead like Rashida Jones, to get into what makes women tick, is a rare thing. It’s about the problems of life and family and job without turning into a cartoon like Bridesmaids or the aforementioned Young Adult, and that’s rare enough that just existing, even if it’s a lesser film, deserves notice. It’s unfortunate that that’s the way of the world, because I feel there’s so many better stories to tell with this type of material and with these performers, but I’ll take what I can get.