To be entirely honest, I’m not a fan of Andy Samberg. Though I don’t know a lot about his SNL run or his filmography, those Lonely Island videos he keeps putting out do absolutely nothing for me. Samberg’s music videos kept going viral, I kept watching them, and God help me, I never got a single chuckle out of them. No joke, my mom and my sister once forced me to sit in front of a computer and watch “Cool Guys Don’t Look at Explosions,” thinking it was the funniest thing ever. I didn’t agree. Sorry, but it’s just not my kind of humor.
On the other hand, I’ve grown very fond of Rashida Jones. She’s smart, she’s pretty, and she’s proven equally adept at comedy and drama. So, when I first saw the trailer for Celeste and Jesse Forever, Jones’ presence pretty much immediately had me hooked. What’s more, her chemistry with Samberg was incredibly powerful, even in such a brief trailer, and this had me further intrigued. Throw in supporting turns from Ari Graynor, Elijah Wood, and Emma Roberts, and I was very eager to see what this film could offer.
The opening credits provide backstory for the complicated relationship of Celeste and Jesse (Jones and Samberg). It starts out simple enough: They’re two longtime friends/soul mates who eventually get married. But then they separate and begin divorce proceedings. Yet they still live together in the same house, they hang out all the time, and they still share their little pet names and inside jokes.
To all the world, they look like a perfectly happy couple, except that they’re getting a divorce. However, attentive audience members will see pretty much immediately why their marriage might not be a healthy one. See, Celeste is a trend forecaster working for a respectable marketing firm. Jesse is a struggling artist who’s chronically unemployed and can barely find the motivation to do any actual drawing. She’s an upwardly mobile professional, and he can barely act mature for two minutes at a time. The problems should be self-evident.
So, that leads to the question of why these two are so great together in the first place. Well, Celeste (we find out as the movie progresses) is emotionally needy. She needs to be loved, she needs to be respected, and she always has to be right. She’s selfish and stubborn, which is never a good combination. That’s why her relationship with Jesse works so well: He’s always there to provide Celeste with the affection and humor that she so badly needs. What’s more, the two of them have known each other for so long and their senses of humor are so compatible that the chemistry between them is completely effortless. That would explain why the relationship works for Jesse: A relationship that doesn’t require any hard work would be a slacker’s dream come true.
There’s also the fact that if the two break up permanently, they’ll have to get back into the dating game. Understandably, neither of them is eager to take that step. Not only is it hard enough to start a relationship during a divorce, but taking someone home could get very awkward between exes who are living together. So Celeste and Jesse are perfectly happy to preserve their friendship and take it slow, trying as hard as possible to delay the inevitable heartbreak.
Then along comes Veronica.
At some point in the separation, Jesse secretly had a one-night stand with a dancer named Veronica (Rebecca Dayan). She meets Jesse again completely by chance a few months later, and they eventually discover that she’s pregnant. Not long after, they confirm that the baby is in fact Jesse’s. This prompts Jesse and Celeste to finally split up for good, as he moves out of the house, rushes the divorce proceedings, and tries to prepare himself for being a father.
Meanwhile, Celeste starts going in a downward spiral, due in no small part to her lingering affection for Jesse. What makes it worse is that Jesse might actually a more suitable match for Celeste now that he’s finally starting to accept some responsibility. In fact, there’s always the implicit question of how things might have gone differently if Jesse had conceived with Celeste instead.
To be clear, Jesse still has a metric ton of complicated feelings for Celeste, and he has trouble dealing with them as well. The difference is that unlike Celeste, Jesse seems willing and motivated to cope with that emotional pain, so long as it results in a clean break. He has a very compelling reason to move on, he has a lover waiting to take him in, and he has a whole new life on the horizon. Celeste has none of these things, and it drives her insane.
Celeste spends the whole film grappling with her own regret, jealousy, and her crippling selfishness. She makes a token effort at dating, though it’s really just an effort to re-establish control over her life and to find the same kind of affection and humor she got with Jesse. The girl has problems, and it doesn’t help that she won’t even acknowledge them to anyone, least of all herself.
The film is primarily focused on the mental and emotional troubles of these two main characters, though there are some interesting supporting characters here and there. It’s also worth noting that Celeste and Jesse have been so close for so long that pretty much all of their friends are mutual acquaintances. They all know each other, which can make things a little tense at moments.
Easily the most prominent main character is Beth, played by Ari Graynor. She’s getting married to Tucker (Eric Christian Olsen), which of course puts Beth and Celeste in such a place that they can comment on each other’s relationship status. Elijah Wood is also on hand as Scott, Celeste’s coworker and faux-gay friend.
Then there’s Riley Banks (Emma Roberts), a pop star who somehow achieved celebrity status despite her total lack of talent and brains. She’s hired Celeste’s company to handle her marketing and PR, much to Celeste’s disgust. It takes a long time for Riley to show any relevance to the plot, but she eventually becomes an unlikely source of consolation for Celeste as time goes by. It’s a sweet moment and Roberts plays it nicely. In fact, all of the aforementioned supporting actors do a good job of establishing their characters and getting some funny moments.
Unfortunately, not all of the supporting cast is so lucky. One example is Paul (Chris Messina), Celeste’s yoga partner and possible love interest. The problem with this character is that he starts out as a guy who’s very hard to like until he suddenly turns into a sweet guy later on. The transition is executed in such a way that it might have worked, if only the character had more screen time and the actor had enough charisma to make it stick. It also doesn’t help that Celeste goes through so many would-be suitors over the course of this film that there’s no way to tell which one (if any) will be the next serious boyfriend until the relationship is already underway.
“Skillz” is an even worse problem. He’s a drug dealer, played by Will McCormack, who provides Celeste with all the comfort marijuana and cheese puffs she needs. For some reason or other, this character just didn’t work for me. Maybe it was the actor or maybe it was how this character was written, but he’s easily the least funny and most forgettable character in the entire cast.
I should point out that McCormack was probably cast because he co-wrote the screenplay with Rashida Jones (Fun fact: The two of them dated very briefly back in the ’90s.). By a similar token, those writing credits would probably explain why Celeste has more screen time than anyone else in the film. She is the protagonist of this movie, and her development is the story’s primary focus. This might be perfectly acceptable in any other movie, but I’d argue that it was the wrong choice for this one.
After all, the movie is titled “Celeste and Jesse Forever.” The two characters are right there in the title together, so I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect that the two of them should get equal screen time. Instead, Celeste gets at least three scenes for every one that features Jesse. This was very disappointing to me, given that both of these main characters go through such tremendous character growth, yet Jesse’s development arc got pushed almost completely to the background.
The notion of a slacker learning to take responsibility out of a sincere wish to be a good father could make for very compelling drama. It’s such a wonderful arc, played so elegantly by Samberg, that I was left wishing we might have seen more of it. Moreover, Veronica gets maybe five lines of dialogue in the whole movie, but she seems like a perfectly nice woman. I wanted to know her better, I wanted to get a better feel for her relationship with Jesse, and I wanted to see how it might compare with the Celeste/Jesse interplay.
Then again, maybe this is a case of “leave them wanting more.” With very few exceptions, the film only runs into Jesse and Veronica when Celeste does. Because we don’t really know any more about the Jesse/Veronica relationship than she does, it’s easier for us to relate to her insecurities over the matter. She keeps asking questions about how they’re doing and how happy they are, and we’re asking those questions as well. It goes back to establishing Celeste as the protagonist, which brings me back to my earlier point about how both of the main characters should have shared the spotlight equally and now I’m just writing in circles.
For all my minor nitpicks, Celeste and Jesse Forever is powered by some rock-solid emotional turmoil and a few juvenile moments of comedy relief. Andy Samberg and Rashida Jones — whether fighting with each other, doting on each other, laughing with each other, or acting individually — turn in such amazing work that it’s worth seeing this film just for them. Really, the good performances in this movie are far more than enough to redeem the middling ones.
Overall, this is a very sweet little feel-good romantic dramedy. If that sounds like your quirky cup of tea, then by all means, seek this film out.