Film review: ‘Celeste and Jesse Forever’ Above-Average Rom-Com

Celeste and Jesse Forever 1Modern romantic comedies are often quirky, bittersweet, and of course, funny (when they work). But Celeste and Jesse Forever, from its ironic title to the twist in its tale, offers more than the standard love-and-complications formula.

Perhaps it’s not surprising to find that Rashida Jones is one of the film’s driving forces – she stars as Celeste and penned the screenplay with Will McCormack (the movie’s press kit notes the two dated “for three weeks in the late ‘90s” before realizing they were better suited as friends and writing partners). She may now be known for her role in TV’s Parks and Recreation, but the daughter of actress Peggy (Mod Squad) Lipton and music legend Quincy Jones is a Harvard grad whose sharp mind colors her artistic work in more than one project.

Celeste and Jesse Forever 3There’s a young-love opening montage before we see Celeste and Jesse (recent Saturday Night Live alum Andy Samberg) a little older but still acting like silly adolescents doting on one another. There’s just one problem with their coziness, though – the couple are in the midst of divorce proceedings. In fact, it’s such a problem that friends like just-engaged Beth (Ari Graynor) and Tucker (Eric Christian Olsen) have trouble enjoying social outings with the not-so-ex-couple.

Celeste, a trend predictor who’s just written the appropriately-titled book “Shitegeist” and runs a successful firm, seems to be the adult of the two; Jesse is a talented artist, but he’s stuck in a personal time warp where surfing and sizing up women’s posteriors with his best bud Skillz (McCormack) still rank at the top of his to-do list.

Celeste and Jesse Forever 7At this point, the film could have gone for a predictable you-know-they’ll-reconcile plotline, or even (shudder) a bromance-plus-one where Jesse, Skillz and Celeste awkwardly sort out their relationships. Thankfully, Jones and McCormack avoid such tedious tracks altogether.

Instead, a beautiful foreigner named Veronica (Rebecca Dayan) enters the picture. As she and Jesse forge ahead together, we realize that Jesse isn’t the only one that struggles with maturity in personal interactions – Celeste is often as petulant as a five-year-old who’s had her candy taken away.

Celeste and Jesse Forever 6There’s plenty of humor, though it’s sometimes too self-conscious and awkward, such as when Celeste and her business partner Scott (Elijah Wood) joke about “gay best friend” stereotypes before Scott basically falls in line with those very stereotypes. Possibly the best balance of comedy and drama in any of the supporting characters comes from Emma Roberts as pop-star-of-the-moment Riley Banks; she serves to point up the extreme shallowness of modern fame, but Riley upon closer inspection has more to offer than good looks and an auto-tuned voice.

Samberg offers a gently nuanced performance that’s quite satisfying. And Jones, who runs the gamut of emotions and situations sublime to ridiculous as Celeste, is simply riveting: you can’t, and don’t want, to take your eyes off her.

Celeste and Jesse Forever 8Director Lee Toland Krieger keeps the movie’s pace from dragging, though all the hand-held shots executed by Director of Photography David Lanzenberg were disorienting at times. Sunny Levine and Zach Cowie for Biggest Crush are credited with the film’s easy-on-the-ears musical score, which underlines the laid-back vibe present in most of this Southern California-set film.

Rom-coms come and go, but it’s easy to understand why Celeste and Jesse Forever was an audience favorite at this year’s Sundance and Los Angeles film festivals: This movie stays a cut above much of its genre’s offerings by taking us in an unexpected direction. Jones and her colleagues deserve credit for aiming higher.

Celeste and Jesse Forever 5Celeste and Jesse Forever opens in the Nashville area today (Friday, Aug. 31) at Regal Green Hills Stadium 16, 3815 Greenhills Village Dr., Nashville (www.regmovies.com) and Carmike Thoroughbred 20, 633 Frazier Dr., Franklin (www.carmike.com). Rated R for language, sexual content and drug use, 91 min. Directed by Lee Toland Krieger, written by Rashida Jones and Will McCormack. Starring Rashida Jones, Andy Samberg, Emma Roberts, Rebecca Dayan, Chris Messina, Ari Graynor, Eric Christian Olsen, Will McCormack, Elijah Wood, Rich Sommer, Matthew Del Negro and Rafi Gavron.

 

 

 

*Photos by Lee Toland Krieger and David Lanzenberg courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).