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Celeste and Jesse Forever

By Philip Martin

This article was published August 31, 2012 at 4:36 a.m.

— Celeste and

Jesse Forever

87 Cast: Rashida Jones, Andy Samberg, Ari Graynor, Eric Christian Olsen, Elijah Wood, Will McCormack, Chris Messina, Emma Roberts Director: Lee Toland Krieger Rating: R, for language, sexual content and drug use Running time: 92 minutes

Celeste and Jesse Forever is a bittersweet inversion of the romantic comedy — a break-up song that describes the sputtering end of a marriage with rare clarity and compassion for the decent hearts involved. It is pitched more closely to reality than we are used to in the genre, an effect that is at times heightened by the way the characters constantly strive for — and occasionally fall short of — genuinely witty banter.

It is also a showcase for the multitalented Rashida Jones — daughter of Quincy Jones and Peggy Lipton — who not only plays the Celeste half of the titular couple, but co-wrote the script with Will McCormack (who also contributes a very funny, though somewhat broader than necessary, turn as a marijuana dealer who aspires to work with children). Jones (The Social Network, Monogamy) is one of those almost-beautiful women who seem born to play “mousy” types who will inevitably be transformed at a crucial moment in the drama — it seems that whatever passes through her mind immediately registers on her face; her mien bespeaks complete engagement.

Yet while we’ve seen enough of Jones to have suspected talent, Andy Samberg — who plays Jesse — was last seen as Adam Sandler’s hapless stooge son in the execrable That’s My Boy. The fear was that Samberg might turn out to be a genuine son of Sandler, yet another refugee from Saturday Night Live who wastes his perhaps minor but certainly genuine gifts in projects contemptuous of the audience. That might still turn out to be the case — remember Sandler has done reasonably well in roles that challenged him to not act like an idiot (he was especially good in Punch-Drunk Love, and not bad at all in Spanglish and the underrated Reign Over Me).

Samberg is not bad here, although his role — as a slacker artist who doesn’t have a checking account — could have allowed him to drift into comfortable cliche. That he doesn’t, that we are able to imagine why almostbeautiful women like Celeste might maintain an interest in him, says a lot about the quiet work he does here.

The twist — what some might call gimmick — of Celeste and Jesse Forever is that it’s about a divorcing couple, who may be trying a little too hard to remain friends. Make that best friends. They are not just the sort of couple capable of annoying their friends with their cutesy private languages and inside jokes — they have been together so long that their friends think of them as a single entity. The idea of Celeste and Jesse breaking up threatens their friends’ faith in romance — if they can’t last, who can?

Celeste won’t deny she loves Jesse, but she has no room for a man-child in her life. She’s intelligent and driven, she has grown into responsibilities and an adult world of which he’s openly contemptuous. They aren’t well matched — and she’s either brave enough to admit it or selfish enough to want more than he’s prepared to do. He’s warm and sweet and lazy and irresponsible. He won’t grow up — at least not as long as he can depend on her.

This entirely plausible premise is a staple of the Hollywood rom-com, of course, but one of the charms of Celeste and Jesse Forever is the way it constantly subverts audience expectations in mild ways that are more congruous with real life than cinematic conventions. The complications predictably arise but they aren’t resolved in predictable movie ways. (Things mostly play out as they might in real life — which makes the few moments of over-the-top comedy feel false and desperate.)

And so some will no doubt find Celeste and Jesse Forever underwhelming, like one of those New Yorker short stories where nothing much happens. But there are moments that might snag and tug at the susceptible heart. We witness as the affair ends, not in fire or ice but in adult resignation, with a shrug of the shoulders and a moistening of the eyes.

MovieStyle, Pages 35 on 08/31/2012

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