Till now, the premiere divorce comedies have been, to some degree, mean-spirited, from His Girl Friday to The War of the Roses. But screenwriters Rashida Jones and Will McCormack have devised a kinder, gentler divorce comedy in Celeste and Jesse Forever.
A "rom com" that plays off of or squirms out of the clichés, Celeste and Jesse Forever stars Jones (TV's Parks and Recreation) and Andy Samberg (Saturday Night Live) as the title characters, high-school sweethearts who got married but eventually hit a wall (Celeste's sticking points: Jesse's lack of a checking account, dress shoes, a car, and career motivation). Now six months separated and heading for a divorce, their relationship is, ironically, stronger than ever—as inseparable best friends.
But unresolved romantic feelings have lingered, consciously for Jesse and perhaps unconsciously for Celeste. As the two explore dating outside of their marriage (and troubleshoot their biological imperatives), the stakes rise, and Jesse's eventual declaration that he hopes for reconciliation begins a slow-boiling crisis for Celeste.
Jones' commitment to portraying Celeste at least as much for her flaws as her strengths winds up making the character more likeable. Celeste's career as a trend forecaster rewards her for being judgmental and cultivates her delusional sense of always being right. As she becomes increasingly manic over her romantic indecision, she drinks to excess, Facebook creeps and, in a supreme moment of stalkerish embarrassment, trashcan-dives in Jesse's driveway. And yet that need to be right finds the pot calling the kettle black. "He's just lost," Celeste concludes of Jesse. "And he's going about everything so wrong!"
While Celeste and Jesse Forever is pretty enough in an urban-indie way, director Lee Toland Krieger also allows the picture to go slack. Even at a slim ninety-one minutes, the picture feels padded with too much material that's dead on arrival, like a manufactured work crisis involving a pop starlet (Emma Roberts) or any scene featuring Elijah Wood as Celeste's self-conscious work buddy ("Sorry, I was trying to be your saucy gay friend").
The picture fares slightly better by accumulating satirical details of the L.A. scene, outwardly concerned with fitness (yoga, pilates, vegan restaurants) but also prone to alcoholic binges and stoned couch-potato crashing. Samberg decently holds up his end of the hipster duet, and McCormack puts in a nice supporting turn as a friend of Jesse's, but it's Jones who easily walks off with the movie, flimsy though it may be.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]