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Josh Reviews Celeste and Jesse Forever

September 24th, 2012
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What a fantastically enjoyable surprise this little movie was!  A romantic (but not really romantic) drama that is very funny (but which I wouldn’t really call a comedy), Celeste and Jesse Forever is a wonderful little film for adults.  It’s somewhat raunchy and juvenile but also remarkably sophisticated and unexpected, eschewing the usual romantic comedy formula for something a little messier, a little rougher-around-the-edges.  I loved it!

The film was written by Rashida Jones (who made her bones on The Office and is now a part of the spectacular ensemble on Parks and Recreation) and her friend Will McCormack (check out this article that explores the pair’s relationship, much of which served as an inspiration for the film’s story), and stars Ms. Jones as the titular Celeste and SNL’s Andy Samberg as Jesse.

Rashida Jones was instantly terrific on The Office, and she’s been pretty great in some supporting film roles recently (such as I Love You, Manclick here for my review, and My Idiot Brotherclick here for my review), so it’s great fun to see her take a leading role.  She’s spectacular, able to be extremely funny while also able to absolutely convincingly sell the film’s dramatic moments.  But she’s been great in everything I just mentioned, so this isn’t a huge surprise.  What is a surprise is how fantastic Andy Samberg is.  Of course it was clear he could be funny, but I think he gives a terrific performance creating a very fleshed-out character in Jesse.  He knows when to flash his huge grin, but he dials back his zaniness to just the right level, creating a character who is a lovable goofball but very much a human being.  When it comes to the dramatic moments, he’s every bit Ms. Jones’ equal.  I love their chemistry in the film — I could watch these two actors play off of one another all day long.  There are some early moments between the two that are so funny (their weird German-accented menu-reading, and of course their off-color lip-balm routine) that it’s pretty impossible not to buy into the idea that these two are soul-mates, made for one another.  Which of course is the point.  Which makes the fact that the film is all about their NOT being together all the more agonizing.  Which, again, is sort of the point.

Obviously I’m not going to spoil the ending (well, at least not before my big spoiler warning a few paragraphs from now), but I am not ruining anything to note that five minutes into the film we learn that Celeste and Jesse are very much not together as a couple.  What follows is an interesting riff on the “can men and women be friends” question from When Harry Met Sally, complicated by Celeste and Jesse’s complex history as well as their individual personal hang-ups.

And hang-ups do they each have!  One of the great things about the film is how deeply flawed both characters are.  The script and the actors’ performances are so strong, funny, and full of heart that as an audience member I felt deeply invested in both characters and I was rooting for their happiness, despite the fact that both do some dumb things as the story unfolds, and both make some truly bad decisions (at least in my opinion).

Though the title refers to both Celeste and Jesse, and though I have been discussing both characters in parallel, at its heart Celeste and Jesse Forever is more about Celeste.  The film is truly her story, with Rashida Jones in the center stage.  This is not at all a criticism.  Quite the opposite — it’s wonderful to see such a strong, fascinating, complex woman as the central character of a film.  And I love that Ms. Jones seems to have created this opportunity for herself, rather than waited for it to be handed to her.  As a viewer, I’ve known for years that she was a great performer, but I’m stunned to learn what a great writer she apparently is as well.

Her co-writer Will McCormack also appears in the film, as Jesse’s drug-dealing best buddy.  He’s an absolute hoot, killing in every scene he’s in.  Adi Graynor (so great playing drunk in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist) and Eric Christian Olsen are fantastic as Celeste and Jesse’s getting-married friends, and Elijah Wood hits a home-run in a smallish role as Celeste’s very gay friend and co-worker.

OK, if you haven’t yet seen this film, go track it down and then thank me later!

If you have already seen the film, feel free to read on — SPOILERS AHEAD.

Yep, I said SPOILERS!

OK, the one teensy tiny complaint I have with the film concerns the ending.  Even as I applaud Celeste and Jesse Forever for avoiding romantic-comedy cliches, as an audience member I so loved these two characters that a part of me really wanted to see a happy Hollywood ending to their story!  I was deeply unsettled, as the film ended, that they didn’t wind up together.  I think what’s at issue is that the film succeeded in convincing me that the two were soul-mates, but NOT that they could not work as a couple.  Because as we approach the end of the film, it becomes clear that the reason they broke up was because of certain immaturity and selfishness on both Celeste and Jesse’s parts.  But once they each realized that, and both began to grow, nothing in the film convinced me that they couldn’t have worked as a couple, and that indeed that they WOULD work better together than with the two people they both seemed to have wound up with.  I love the realism that sometimes someone makes a mistake and a relationship is ruined and there is just no way to magically walk that back.  But boy, as an audience member I sort of wish Ms. Jones and Mr. McCormack had decided to let the realism slip a little bit and give us a happier ending.

(I recently wrote about True Romanceclick here for my review — and on the DVD’s special features you can see Quentin Tarantino’s original ending in which Clarence was killed.  But on the commentary track, Mr. Tarantino admits that director Tony Scott’s insistence on a happy ending — in which Clarence and Alabama get away and live happily ever after — was the right, audience-satisfying ending.  True Romance is definitely not a typical romantic comedy, even though it is in places very romantic and very comedic — sound familiar? — but yet the happy ending was emotionally right.  A big part of me wishes that the talented folks behind Celeste and Jesse Forever had made the same choice.)

But still, as criticisms go, this is a minor note, and over-all I was incredibly impressed with Celeste and Jesse Forever. I hope Ms. Jones and Mr. McCormack work together again soon, and this is definitely a film I hope to see again when it comes out on DVD…

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