By Michael Phillips Chicago Tribune
Like the recent “Take This Waltz,” directed and written by Sarah Polley, the new American indie “Celeste and Jesse Forever” begins and ends with an unspoken question: Is this mismatched couple meant to stay together?
Set in a universe of restless narcissists — meaning L.A. — the movie written by Rashida Jones and Will McCormack and directed by Lee Toland Krieger opens with a montage of how Celeste (played by Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg) meet, date, marry and then split.
Already? Usually this sort of montage fades out before the “directed by” credit hits the screen, at the “marry” part.
“Celeste and Jesse Forever” is different, enough to distinguish itself from a lot of other small-scale relationship films. Its characters, post-split, are trying to remain friends, because it’s easy and comfortable, too much so.
Jones and McCormack write about bright, quippy people who are simpatico in their senses of humor but stuck in a kind of post-adolescent rut.
Audiences prefer their romantic comedies to stick to A leads to B leads to C, and concludes with ending D. This one scrambles its ABCs just enough to make the outcome feel like life, as opposed to just another movie.
Jones’ Celeste works as a pop-culture branding guru (already, we’re in a somewhat rarefied realm of “relatability”) who becomes a sounding board to a reckless young pop star (Emma Roberts).
Jesse is more boy-man than man, and hasn’t yet gotten his career going. Celeste and Jesse try to date their way out of their nagging attachment to each other.
Chris Messina plays the brightest of several prospects for Celeste; Jesse, meantime, becomes more seriously involved, and the best of “Celeste and Jesse Forever” confronts the neediness behind Celeste’s behavior toward Jesse, post-divorce.
Samberg’s performance doesn’t push the comedy, though he’s not yet what I’d call a gripping or surprising screen actor.
Jones is about five steps up from there. She’s learned all the right lessons from her work thus far, notably on “Parks and Recreation,” about how to inhabit a scene naturally, without leaning too hard into the punch lines.
A hard drinker and quick-witted sweetie, Celeste is neither heroine nor anti-heroine. She’s a little messed up, a little lost, a little mean, a little nice.
It’s nice to see someone like this at the center of a movie, however facile and coy parts of the movie may be. It’s hard to build a story around two people who find each other delightfully funny this much of the time; certainly it puts pressure on the actual funniness of the material, and the task grows more challenging because Celeste and Jesse are meant to be sort of low-level pathetic as well as medium-level charming.
Jones is first-rate (and her fellow writer McCormack is fun as the wild-eyed pot dealer, Skillz).
The film has a conventional fake-documentary look, but underneath it is an honest concern about how to learn to treat people well and kindly after the end.
Or to get to an ending, or a new beginning, in the first place.
“Celeste and Jesse Forever”
Rated: R for strong sexual content, including nudity, violence and language.
Showing: Pacific Place, Sundance.