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.
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