Review: Breaking Up Is (Really) Hard to Do in Charming, Honest ‘Celeste and Jesse Forever’

By  · Published on August 1st, 2012

Editor’s note: Celeste and Jesse Forever opens in limited release this Friday, but back in June, we saw the film at LAFF and positively loved it (so much that we’d marry it). This review was originally published on June 22, 2012.

You’d be correct in mistaking Celeste (Rashida Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg) for a happy couple. All the signs are there – inside jokes, Celeste’s shiny “C & J Forever” pendant, dinners with friends, professions of love, even a special sign language – but, alas, you’d be wrong. Celeste and Jesse are not forever, in fact, they’re getting a divorce. The opening credits of Lee Toland Krieger’s Celeste and Jesse Forever (penned by Jones and co-star Will McCormack) zip us through Celeste and Jesse’s relationship – from shy happiness in high school, to high stakes sexual chemistry in college, to blissful young marriage, to now (and now is exactly when things get messy).

When we meet Celeste and Jesse, the pair are still acting as if they are romantically involved – and that’s the problem. Jesse has taken up residence in the couple’s backyard cottage (his studio), but other than that, everything else is status quo – the affection, the bond, the connection – and while the two of them seem content with the situation, it unquestionably needs to change. And fast.

Despite the warmth and chemistry between Celeste and Jesse, we quickly come to learn just how a seemingly wonderful relationship has ended in a broken union – Celeste is an ambitious go-getter (she’s a “trend forecaster” who takes her job seriously, and she’s been rewarded with a new book and a partnership in her firm) and illustrator Jesse is happy enough just relaxing in his studio. The cracks formed between them have brought them here – six months into their separation after a six year marriage – and the understanding is that, before they dropped the axe, things were pretty goddamn miserable. But hanging on to old relationships and old affections is just as toxic and dangerous as staying in them, and the one-two punch of an ill-advised evening of backsliding and the news that Jesse has something big going on (very) independent of his relationship with Celeste push them further apart than they’ve ever been. And they also push the always-in-control (and, to listen to her, always correct) Celeste into the sort of downward spiral we’d expect from Jesse.

In Celeste and Jesse Forever, Jones exhibits more heart, charm, and chemistry than we’ve previously seen from her, particularly in her supporting television roles in both The Office and Parks and Recreation. She is a real leading lady, and that is partially thanks to the role she’s written for herself (along with McCormack) and partially thanks to her immensely appealing comic timing. Celeste and Jesse Forever might be about an irreparable relationship (the film’s clever tagline bills it as “a loved story”) and all the emotions that come bundled up with that, but it’s also very funny and very easy to get lost inside.

The film features a large, recognizable cast supporting and, for all the expected roles (Eric Christian Olsen and Ari Graynor as Celeste and Jesse’s somewhat dippy, but well-meaning best friends, Chris Messina as the one non-Jesse dude who might crack open Celeste’s heart), a number of the talents are playing amusingly against type– including Elijah Wood as Celeste’s prissy partner, Emma Roberts as a Kesha-styled pop star whose career Celeste needs to help resurrect, Rich Sommer as a nice dude on a bad date, McCormack himself as Jesse and Celeste’s dim-witted pot dealer, and Chris Pine as…well, keep your eyes peeled for his very unique virtual cameo.

The film adeptly juggles different perspectives and elements of Celeste and Jesse’s lives before giving over to Celeste and her own journey. While things become muddled during the film’s middle portion, these choices don’t appear to be due to equally muddled filmmaking, but seem to have been made to reflect Celeste’s own mental state – jumpy, confused, and prone to wildly vacillating between both good choices and bad experiences. Krieger does take some time to harness his tone – the first fifteen or so minutes of Celeste and Jesse are perhaps too light-hearted, and it’s jarring when things become serious (and swiftly) – but it catches its bearings and sings on beautifully. Krieger and his crew also throw in some effective touches to further their aims – reflecting mood and tone through the film’s color palette; gradually changing Celeste’s mainly black wardrobe; approximating distress through unfocused cameras, skewed angles, and low sound; outfitting the whole thing with a solid soundtrack – and the result is a well-made (and clearly well-loved) final product.

The Upside: Rashida Jones turns in a beautiful, multi-faceted performance that (if anything in Hollywood is fair) should push her into a higher level of roles and films; lovingly penned by Jones and Rashida; inventively but not obtrusively directed by Krieger; hits the three h’s (and handily) – heart, humor, and honesty.

The Downside: A muddled middle portion frequently reads as confusing; a tighter focus on Celeste’s story pulls us away from Jesse and his own trials; the film has trouble straddling tones in its first half.

On the Side: Jones and McCormack are real-life best friends, a bond that is reflected in their singularly envisioned screenplay.

On the Side, Part Two: Sony Pictures Classics will release Celeste and Jesse Forever in limited release on August 3.

On the Side, Part Three: Our own Allison Loring also reviewed the film at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Re-live her review HERE.

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