A Relationship Turns Inside Out: ‘Celeste and Jesse Forever’

“This year, all trends will head toward simplicity and comfort.” This is what Celeste (Rashida Jones) does for a living. A “trend analyst” for a high profile public relations company, Popform, she’s well paid and she’s responsible, she provides soundbites for the Los Angeles Times and has a book, Shitegeist, that she promotes on cue.

She also has an ex, Jesse (Andy Samberg), who lives in her garage, that is, the garage that used to be theirs. At the start of Celeste and Jesse Forever, they’ve been separated for six months but, well, they can’t quite fully separate. And so they spend their evenings together, playing the same games and laughing at the same jokes they always did. They’ve split, they sort of agree, because they’ve grown apart: she’s successful and he’s an artist unable to pay rent, still searching for what makes him happy, apart from Celeste.

It only takes a couple of minutes for you to tire of this premise. And yet, the movie presses on, showing you how their requisite best friends — the recently engaged Beth (Ari Graynor) and Tucker (Eric Christian Olsen) — are unnerved by Celeste and Jesse’s unusual arrangement. Beth and Tucker can’t even make it through one evening with them, ending a night out with desperate proclamations (“We can’t do this anymore!” or again, “It’s fucking weird!”) and then scurrying from their table in horror. Celeste and Jesse don’t get it: “It’s notweird that we hang out all the time,” they confirm for one another, even as you know it is. They’re going to move on, they agree, but for the moment, they’ll just do what’s simple and comfortable.

Except that it’s not. And this is the lesson that Jesse and Celeste must come to appreciate, through a series of episodes they should see coming. And so, they spend a drunken night together, they argue over a precious possession or two, they feel jealous when they find out the other is dating someone else. They confide in their non-Beth-and-Tucker best friends: Celeste’s is gay (Scott, played by Elijah Wood) and Jesse’s deals dope (Skillz, played by Jones’ co-screenwriter Will McCormack).

While Jesse is more or less pressed into decision-making after a one night with Veronica (Rebecca Dayan) results in her pregnancy. Now, the man whom Celeste believed could never be adult enough to be the proper father of her children is going to do just that with someone else. Here the film — to its credit — grinds its gears a bit, in a scene where Jesse breaks the news, then gestures toward an explanation, or more precisely, hopes out loud that he’s doing a right thing, at last, something celeste might appreciate, something he doesn’t really understand or even much want to do. As he speaks, the camera keeps close on Jones’ face, which falls, re-comports, resists, and then comprehends, all in about 30 seconds. It’s a short-lived, awkward, and oddly compelling moment in a film that’s fond of clever surfaces, glib retorts, and silly sight gags.

These gags are everywhere in Celeste and Jesse Forever (see, for examples, Celeste getting high with Skillz, Celeste trading officey japes with Scott, Celeste fallen into Jesse’s dumpster), and they’re granted an apparently facile showcase with Celeste’s latest assignment at work, the self-important teen pop star Riley (Emma Roberts). She’s a standard, easy-target type, sheltered and entitled, not nearly so wonderful as her handlers and fans help her to believe. When they meet by accident, in the Popform bathroom, Celeste and Riley watch themselves and each other in the mirror as they speak, Celeste correcting Riley’s vocabulary and Riley dismissing her control-freaky efforts (“Thanks, Scrabble”).

But even as the relationship looks designed to reinforce Celeste’s sense of superiority and cynicism, it’s not long before they bond, in a sort of big-and-little-sisters way, over lost loves. It’s not so much that they share ideas or even much emotional support over the manchildren they think they want. It’s more that Celeste can see herself in her young charge, and so, maybe, see what’s both enticing and utterly frightening about perpetual adolescence.

Here again, and very briefly, the film shifts from gallumphy physical comedy to slightly subtler performances of evolving fears and rudimentary insights. “Are you crying about sports?” Riley asks her new confidante when she catches Celeste tearing up over wrestling at the Beijing Olympics. You get it, because it’s a DVD she and Jesse used to watch together. But with this moment (and Roberts’ deadpan line reading), the running gag is briefly turned into something else, a gloss on the ways that “simple and comfortable” routines shape identities and relationships, how they obstruct change and limit experience. If Celeste couldn’t understand that value of this particular routine before, now you, at least, see what’s missing in her new routine.

What’s missing is not wrestlers or even Jesse, but, rather, the sense of instant, wordless connection the image structured for her, a connection with a past self, a past sense of optimism, a past appreciation of bad, out of control taste. Romantic comedies encourage you to feel — by rote, mostly — embarrassment, pleasure, sympathy. The scene with Riley doesn’t ask you to feel any of those, and it’s is inconsequential for the plot. Neither girl resolves her boy troubles or becomes instantly or importantly supportive of the other. But it serves as a short respite from the clichés and the predictable beats. And for that, you can feel grateful.

RATING 4 / 10
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