Film Review: Celeste and Jesse Forever

Rashida Jones&#8217; first starring vehicle joins the stack of rom-com movies still working the premise of <i>When Harry Met Sally</i>: Can a man and a woman be friends without (or after) having sex?

Rashida Jones has written herself a juicy, self-referential part in Celeste and Jesse Forever, a modern marriage comedy also starring Andy Samberg, and directed by Lee Toland Krieger. It’s just great that women in film—anyway this woman in film, Jones, playing off her guileless personae of TV’s “Parks and Recreation” and “The Office”—are now so secure they enjoy sending themselves up, taking a few pratfalls, even looking occasionally unattractive, like a comic bit where Jones floats by, passed out on a pool float.

Celeste and Jesse Forever mostly wants to know if a man and a woman can be lasting friends after sex, marriage and divorce. An adjunct query—highlighted by the movie’s placement of their emotional high point of a mutually administered “hand job” to first a small tube of Vaseline (beginning of film) and then to a cocktail-sized mini ear of corn (the movie’s conclusion)—is whether they will like each other in the morning. The former schoolmates have their relationship summarized by home-movie-like quick cuts behind the introductory titles; you actually could stop there, since this is the film in a nutshell.

Dialogue? There must be some, though the main repartee consists of “Dude!” and the “F” word used as an adjective. Too bad, for there is a sprinkling of witty lines which Jones and Will McCormack (her co-writer, also in a distinctive supporting role as a drug-pusher) show themselves to be capable of (like Celeste’s remark about Rebecca Dayan as a potential squeeze of her soon-to-be ex-husband: “She’s cute, a younger me!”).

Celeste is a professional trend-spotter for a high-end Los Angeles marketing firm, with a just-published book spawning promotional TV appearances, and married to Jesse (Samberg), a sweet but not very motivated artist. His lack of ambition has finally irritated Celeste so much she decides a divorce would be good for them, possibly even the best way to preserve their friendship.

Be careful what you don’t wish for, because somebody else may get it, says Celeste, in a schmaltzy speech expressing regret that she cut her best friend/husband loose in the movie’s walpurgisnacht. As a confessional maid of honor at the nuptials of her best-couple friends, Celeste provides another Harry/Sally take on one successful relationship, and one that goes bust.

Credit for keeping the party scenes lively is due to editor Yana Gorskaya and cinematographer David Lanzenberg, well-regarded for his music-videos, here using the music of Sunny Levine and Zach Cowie of Biggest Crush. But the one-on-one shots of conversations between principals are static, soap opera-derived tête-à-têtes. This throws the focus on the talk, which is, well, trite.

Nevertheless, Celeste and Jesse Forever will find its audience, for Celeste is very close to Jones’ popular roles and Samberg is likeable as ever in his cuddly way, as gentle as a “SNL” graduate can be. No sparks fly, but he does want to hug a lot when feeling lonely. You do wonder if “young professional” target viewers will be chagrined to see their main issues here are things like shoe wear, not the dilemma that plagued their parents: how to balance personal fulfillment and social good.

One curiously mixed message is that Celeste seems softened by her pain, after emotional events in the film take the spunk out of her. For instance, she no longer snaps at people while waiting on line. But the less driven, more “intuitive” woman gets the guy after all. (“I just know,” says Dayan when she predicts Jesse will be a good dad.) Have we come full circle, or are we just crazy-confused enough to find we’re back where we started before Betty Friedan turned up?