It’s easy to be down on “alternative” —or independent—romantic comedies. Lower-budget boy-meets-girl movies seem even more moribund than more conventional entries in the genre these days, with offerings like Lola Versus and (500) Days of Summer aping Hollywood conventions, adding little to the well-oiled machine but a vague sense of quirk. The notion that they’re telling a new or different sort of story is belied by the same familiar beats and characters and tropes audiences have become familiar with through your run-of-the-mill blockbuster.
Celeste and Jesse Forever, however, announces itself as a genuine alternative to the mainstream romantic comedy and for once doesn’t play the part in name only. It’ll restore your faith that there’s something new to say about love on screen—or, at least, a new way to say it.
The film’s opening sequence introduces the audience to a couple (Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg, playing Celeste and Jesse) who have fallen in and out of romantic love. They are still together but clearly disillusioned, separated and preparing for divorce—but still sharing a platonic affection.
Celeste is a high-powered author and trend-spotting PR agent of sorts (what it is she does all day remains vague throughout the movie, and is a failure of the film, but more on this later), while Jesse is a layabout illustrator who prefers watching old VHS tapes of the Olympics to making money. Their divergent ambitions have pulled the couple apart; it’s possible to have known someone for a very long time and yet still have rushed into marriage. They’re rushing into divorce, too—Jesse hasn’t even moved out as he prepares to sign the paperwork.
What makes Celeste and Jesse Forever bold is its view of what happens after the end of a romance. Romantic comedies often view long-term relationships as the end goal—comedies since Shakespeare have ended with a marriage, but contemporary heroines have pursued it so aggressively and single-mindedly that the head spins. In other words, the long-term relationship is so obviously wrong that it is an obstacle to be cleared so that true love, with the female half’s cute neighbor or the friend she’s always ignored, may reign.
Celeste and Jesse’s relationship, as seen through a montage of still photographs, was neither perfect nor horrid. Like a real relationship, it had component parts that were very positive and very negative, drawn out over the course of the film through the pair’s completely natural interactions with one another. Ms. Jones and Mr. Samberg have an enviable chemistry that threatens at any time to burst into a screaming fight or into a rekindling of affection. And their relationship, like any real relationship, proves remarkably difficult to end definitively.