Thursday, August 30, 2012

Review: "Celeste and Jesse Forever"

I really wanted to like "Celeste and Jesse Forever" more than I did. It's a smart, wryly funny dramedy about a divorcing couple who can't quite seem to let go. Rashida Jones is a revelation in it, playing as distinctly drawn a female character as we've seen in a while.

My disconnect is that it's supposed to be the story of two people, when really it's about Celeste. Jesse is certainly in the picture, but his role is more to hold up the frame and let the audience gaze at her. We never get into his head the way we do Celeste's.

Given that this is a pet project of Jones -- she also is a producer and co-wrote the screenplay with Will McCormack -- it's not surprising that the light shines mostly on her. But the imbalanced nature of the way they're presented leaves us with a film that feels only partially complete.

Late in the story, Jesse complains to Celeste that she never saw him as an equal in their relationship. The same can be said for the movie.

Things aren't helped by Andy Samberg's lackluster performance as Jesse. A goofy actor from "Saturday Night Live" and several film comedies, Samberg simply doesn't have the acting chops to pull off something like this, with aspirations toward depth and complexity. He reads his lines as if he's searching for the hidden joke inside.

Although there are plenty of funny moments in the film, its essence veers more toward the somber than the profane. Samberg's presence makes the material seem more lightweight than it wants to be.

The story opens with a typical evening of the pair hanging out, cracking jokes and generally fitting together like hand in glove. These are the rare lovers who are also best friends. Except, at the end of their reverie, we learn they split up six months ago, and divorce proceedings are underway.

Certainly their friends have difficulty grasping the notion. They tell the couple they're just putting off the pain, but Jesse and Celeste insist their friendship will outlive their breakup. That seems a possibility, until they start getting interested in other people and sparks of friction begin flying.

Celeste is the more ambitious of the pair, a professional "trend forecaster" who's co-founder of a successful marketing firm. Elijah Wood has a neat little turn as her partner, who keeps making lame attempts to play the role of the catty gay pal, except he's too much of a business type to be convincing.

Meanwhile, Jesse is a failed artist who's never had a real job or even a checking account. Without it being said directly (at least initially), it would seem their breakup was initiated by doubts about Jesse's fitness to be a father, both hers and his.

The movie, directed by Lee Toland Krieger, is at its best when it's not trying to do too much. The story has a loose, easygoing feel and the characters interact the way real people do (or at least they way we'd like to think we do).

Most every person we meet turns out to be a little more nuanced than our first impression. For instance, Celeste's firm takes on a Ke$ha-like singer as a client, the sort of shallow pop songstress she despises, and finds out there's more to the young woman (Emma Roberts) than she thought. Or the slick business guy (Chris Messina) who tries to pick her up at yoga class.

"Celeste and Jesse Forever" is still a worthy movie, even if it's really more about one-half of a breakup than a whole.

2.5 stars out of four

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