Every year the rom-com fantasies must be gently looked down upon by a star studded tale of failed young love and regret. The 2012 entry to that canon is Celeste and Jesse Forever, a comedy/drama that runs Andy Samberg and Rashida Jones (who also co-wrote the script) through the heartbreak cycle for bitter laughs and a gentle push into the realm of dramatic acting. It’s funny, sweet, and feels honest, yet also seems just a little too reminiscent of other films of this type without any sense of its own identity. For all of Jones’ attempts to acknowledge and twist rom-com clichés, the movie ultimately settles into it’s own overly familiar milieu of career driven women who need heartbreak to prioritize their love life and man-children who grow up and discover responsibility overnight. It’s still a perfectly pleasant distraction if only for the performances, just unfortunately not nearly as clever or insightful as the film both needs to be and thinks it is.
Jones stars as Celeste a smart and pretty, but hopelessly career obsessed young woman (think Holly Hunter in Broadcast News). She dated Samberg’s hapless would-be artist Jesse since high school before promptly breaking up with him in the hopes of forcing him to find an actual vocation and focus in life. They still hang out and play baby talk games constantly to the endless irritation of their friends (Ari Graynor and Eric Christian Olsen), with Jesse even living in Celeste’s guest house. It seems like they’ll eventually get back together and Jesse carries a torch, but after a drunken hook up that Celeste insists can never happen again, things change. Jesse discovers he knocked up a one-night stand and decides to “man-up” and be a father, and Celeste is so shocked that she goes into a tailspin of bad dates, soft drug use, poor hygiene, and even some work troubles at her trendspotting marketing gig. Jesse on the other hand takes well to his newfound maturity and suddenly Celeste, who was never quite over their relationship, has to learn to let go and admit her mistakes.
As you may have guessed, Celeste and Jesse Forever is thankfully not a rom-com fantasy, but a more mature and thoughtful comedy about relationships. The down side is that it’s not a particularly funny one. Jones’ tailspin has its share of amusing moments (like when she passes out in the pool at a friends party or the couples games she shares with Samberg), just not nearly enough. The movie also isn’t insightful enough to work as a drama with comedic moments as the uptight-business-girl-goes-mushy and failed-artist-becomes-responsible tropes are worn out and unnatural. Director Lee Toland Krieger uses the typical rough-hewn indie handheld camera aesthetic in an attempt to force a feeling of “realism” onto the material, but that in itself is such a low-budget cliché at this point, that it’s just distracting. There are a few scenes staged in that manner where the jagged style enhances the fraught emotions (particularly the finale), but not enough to justify the entire movie being shot that way. There just aren’t laughs or hash truths on display and at least one of those elements needs to be in ready supply for this sort of flick to work.
Of course, it’s far from bad. There are the two leads that share enough undeniable chemistry and balance the competing comedic/dramatic threads of their roles so well that the actors are at least worth watching even if the movie isn’t. Andy Samberg is given his first role outside of his usual broad sketch-comedy style and delivers admirably. He’s funny and charming when he needs to be, which is to be expected. More impressive and unexpected is the fact that he can effortlessly carry off painful scenes without laughs. That’s a skill he’ll need to survive outside of the SNL bubble and this movie proves he can do it. Even better is Rashida Jones. Trapped on a treadmill of playing straight-laced girlfriends in light comedies for far too long, the actress clearly wrote the film as a showcase for herself and nails it. Whether barreling through hilarious drunken scenes of embarrassment or tearing up during heartfelt moments of reflection, there isn’t a moment where Jones feels less than assured and natural. She clearly has a hefty stack of untapped talent leagues above how she’s been used before and if nothing else this film will hopefully get her enough attention to land some meaty parts in the future. The movie proves that she’s a comedic and dramatic actress to watch, even if she also seems to be a writer who should maybe leave the scribbling in her journals.