Nothing about the interactions between Celeste and Jesse seems schematic, a credit to a script that puts them through a number of twists that might seem contrived. But Celeste’s reactions in particular are unpredictable in the way that people are unpredictable (co-writer Rashida Jones gave herself, after years of being improperly utilized on NBC sitcoms, a great character); nothing in this film seems as though it came from a screenwriting handbook.
It is difficult in the age of spoilers to discuss this film without going into vagaries of the sort indulged above; that’s because the standout element of the film, the relationship as written, relies on the shock of the real, the consistent depiction of the option that Celeste or Jesse, fully realized characters, might choose against the best interest of themselves or of a tidy narrative. It’s so unlike other movies of its ilk that to specifically delineate the hows and whys is to spoil its effect.
Other elements of the film are less effective: the script falters in its attempt to parody contemporary culture through Celeste’s job and through a Britney-circa-1999-ish starlet she promotes, or mentors, or something. Lee Toland Krieger’s direction is at times naturalistic to a fault; scenes can be poorly lit. Certain characters—Ari Graynor’s well-drawn confidante or Elijah Wood’s against-type boss—fall through the cracks in ways that feel true to Celeste and Jesse’s narcissistic pursuit of happiness but don’t give the characters enough to do. Were they not able to make such good use of their limited screen time, they’d be the traditional boring best friends and confessors every romantic comedy is stocked with.
And Celeste and Jesse are narcissistic and self-involved; but that’s the point. Rather than bravely soldiering on to the next great love, as any hero or heroine who dumps the wrong partner at the start of a movie ought to do, they both end up in entanglements. Their respective greatest loves are not one another but the idea of “Celeste and Jesse”—they clearly don’t fit together, and we aren’t rooting for them to make it. Celeste and Jesse Forever, then, is ultimately a film that flies in the face of the notion underpinning most of modern cinema, that conventionally perfect love is possible.
Love, in this film, is conditional, compromised, the end result of a series of often wrongheaded decisions. What becomes of Celeste and Jesse, as a pair, is ultimately less interesting than the changes wrought in each of them as individuals after they separate. It helps that Ms. Jones and Mr. Samberg so compellingly sell post-breakup lives every bit as individually interesting as their chemistry together.
And, for all its power to subsume the self into a unit, love is hardly anything to celebrate; the true achievement, for Celeste and Jesse, is becoming oneself again in the face of a culture that prizes the sacrifice of the individual to an ideal. A film that starts with a breakup and moves toward, well, no resolution that’s traditionally satisfying, is a film that truly understands the sublime and painful comedy of having been in love.
CELESTE AND JESSE FOREVER
Running Time 89 minutes
Written by Rashida Jones, Will McCormack
Directed by Lee Toland Krieger
Starring Rashida Jones, Andy Samberg, Elijah Wood