Celeste and Jesse Forever

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 01/31/12 14:42:19

"Celeste & Jesse For Two Hours is actually a bit much."
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

SCREENED AT SUNDANCE USA 2012: "I don't like the main character" isn't really a great reason to dislike a movie - there are plenty of disreputable protagonists who are nevertheless intriguing - but in real life, it's not a lot of fun to hang around people who complain despite being the authors of their own misery. That's what "Celeste and Jesse Forever" too often feels like; it wants to be a relationship comedy with some depth, but it seldom has much beyond the superficial.

Celeste (Rashida Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg) have been best friends and lovers for half their lives, and can be almost nauseatingly cute together. It kind of freaks their engaged friends Beth (Ari Graynor) and Tucker (Eric Christian Olsen) out, as this is not, in their minds, the way a couple in the middle of a divorce should be acting. And despite the sources of friction that still show up occasionally, they remain best friends, even if they do seem like they should inevitably be pulled back toward each other. At least, it seems that way until Celeste returns from a tour to promote her new book; the two weeks apart have changed the landscape considerably.

Jesse is an artist who, toward the start of the movie, is more interested in catching some waves than finishing some work for Celeste's public relations firm, while Celeste is a "trend analyst"; the title of her book, "Shitegeist", gives some idea of how reflexively cynical she can be. And while they may not be horrible people, there's not much to them that's actively interesting - they're introduced to us with comedic shtick and the first personality traits of either that make a strong impression are negative. They're hollow shells who make what impression they do manage by having decent actors playing them, and that's the title characters - the supporting cast frequently doesn't even get a chance to rise to the level of "superficial".

Of course, if the secondary characters did have the sort of personalities that made one feel they existed for a purpose outside of keeping the stars from talking to themselves, they might feel even more obviously like random plot/gag devices. Go ahead, try and remember anything about Elijah Wood's character beyond him being gay and trying too hard to be the Saucy Gay Friend; ditto for Rebecca Dayan's Veronica, whose emergence as Jesse's new girlfriend is crucial to the story. Or think about the idiocy of the opening scene, where Beth wigs out because Celeste and Jesse are acting like best friends when they join them for dinner at a restaurant. Now, this would make sense if Beth and Tucker were just being exposed to this situation, but the couples are best friends and this has apparently been going on for months, so even though the audience doesn't know a single thing about these barely-defined people, co-writers Jones and Will McCormack are still making them act out of character! McCormack also has a character that enters as necessary to do what the plot needs him to at that moment: His pot dealer "Skillz" first shows up as Jesse's buddy and sounding board, but as Jesse disappears from the picture, he winds up hanging around with Celeste, because having them smoke weed while Skillz says vaguely inappropriate things is almost like having the characters do something.

It goes on and on like that, with very few moments seeming genuine or even well-motivated. Characters who are nothing but mean and dismissive to each other suddenly start hugging because it's getting late in the picture and we need to show that Celeste has grown even though the movie hasn't done much except show the need for her to grow (repeatedly and pointedly). Random problems get introduced only to be resolved without the character's actual participation, people say "I have to do this alone" despite no evidence one way or the other of that being the way to go, and, oh God, we're at a wedding and someone is about to give a speech...

Sure, things could be worse; despite all that these characters have going against them, the cast is good enough to make an individual scene or line work most of the time. Rashida Jones the actress is capable of making Celeste perky and charming enough to compensate for what Rashida Jones the writer fails to do. Andy Samberg seems to put a lot more into Jesse than is on the page. Elijah Wood, Emma Roberts, Ari Graynor, and Will McCormack all have their moments. And director Lee Toland Krieger gives the dramatic moments good space, even if a side effect is that unfunny comedy bits also get dragged out.

But for all the entire cast and crew's good intentions, there's just not much here. Maybe the idea is that having the characters be generic will make them easier to identify with, but both relationship dramas and comedies either need some sort of hook aside from vague familiarity or really great execution, and this one has neither.

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