‘It’s about breaking up! No, it’s about life in Los Angeles! Let’s make something real. We’ll write about what we know and cast our friends. It will be hilarious and heartbreaking and genuine. It will be perfect!’ Or it will be a muddled and frustrating test of endurance. The (admittedly) exaggerated and imaginary remarks above are excerpted from my imagining of the writing process of Celeste and Jesse Forever. They’re also a fair summary of the film’s general themes, conceived by the green co-writing team of Rashida Jones and Will McCormack, who were once a couple themselves. But I’d guess the couple in Celeste and Jesse Forever is a composite of their own relationships and of people they know. In meshing together the traits of these inspirations, the characters become the sum of stereotypes and contradictions. They’re irksome and likeable at different times, and while this may be ordinary in vérité drama, it is jarring and incongruous in the context of a film that declares its own absurdity as much as it aims to be taken seriously.
Celeste (Rashida Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg) were married right out of college and in rapturous love, as evidenced by a brief montage flashing along with the credits. But after seven years, disagreements and direction have driven them to separation and they’re now on divergent planes: Celeste is a type-A media consultant who forecasts cultural trends and wrote a book called “Shitegeist,” while Jesse is a loafing abstract artist who muses about a long-gestating show. The hitch is that Jesse still lives in the guest house, and they’re trying to figure out if friendship and divorce are mutually exclusive. As one would predict, their attempt to maintain this arrangement is tested when Jesse announces that he is going to start dating again. This would be awkward for most pairs of exes, but things get complicated when he tells her he’s going to have a child with someone else. Although Celeste has always been the stable and pragmatic one, she isn’t nearly as unflappable as a newly single woman.
Though it purports to be about Celeste and Jesse, the narrative is really about Celeste. They’re in the same social orbit, but she has to manage a high-pressure job where she represents a barely-legal pop star, winkingly named Riley Banks (Emma Roberts), while coming to terms with just about everything in her life. That’s the gist of the melodrama — it’s understandable that it centers on Celeste, especially considering the screenplay’s authors. But the film doesn’t hinge on drama alone; it also smothers you with humor, which is often forced but intermittently on point. The film’s MO seems to be to pummel us with a flurry of jokes and pack in the exposition, and this hurried approach is altogether exhausting. The tendency towards logorrhea is forgivable for first-time screenwriters; what’s inexcusable is leaving in dialogue that clarifies the obvious and insults the intelligence of its own characters. To be specific: when a BabyBjörn comes up in conversation between college-educated adults, it should be assumed that the characters have either seen The Hangover or visited a shopping mall.
Maybe I’m being harsh, but any portrayal of Los Angeles as a vacuous wasteland inhabited mostly by wealthy and well-connected yogis, surfers, and vegans is lazy and belittling. That being said, Celeste and Jesse does have redeeming qualities. The cinematography is remarkably vivid, almost three-dimensional, and a number of shots are nothing less than stunning. Director Lee Toland Krieger’s previous film, The Vicious Kind, was a low profile winner, and if Celeste and Jesse weren’t so bipolar it would have been the ideal vehicle to herald him as a filmmaker on the rise. While Jones comes across as a woman on the brink, there are moments when Krieger pulls back from her frantic exploits to reveal a latent sense of desperation that illuminates her anxiety with subtlety and sympathy.
With the film’s broad and expressive style, the role of Celeste doesn’t play to Jones’s comedic strengths, but she is buoyed by two standout supporting performances. Will McCormack is timely and invaluable as Skillz, Celeste and Jesse’s pot dealing go-between, and Emma Roberts acts exactly like the total nightmare we imagine entitled teen megastars to be. (If there were a spinoff, I would like to see those two take the lead.) As for Samberg, you know what you’re getting: he plays himself, with some indulgent outbursts of crying.