Andy Samberg and Rashida Jones in 'Celeste and Jesse Forever': movie review

'Celeste' is a rarity: a rom-com break-up scenario seen from the female point of view.

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg play ex-spouses giving platonic love a try in ‘Celeste and Jesse Forever.’

The Sundance charmer “Celeste and Jesse Forever” is more interesting than its synopsis might indicate. It’s a rom-com about a married couple who are getting divorced but want to remain best friends.

Celeste (Rashida Jones) works as a trendspotter at a swank Los Angeles marketing firm; Jesse (Andy Samberg) is a layabout artist who is now residing in her guest bungalow. They go everywhere together, break themselves up with their jokes, and generally act like goony kids in love – except it’s all platonic now.

To their friends, especially Celeste’s closest confidante, Beth (Ari Graynor), there’s something creepy about this intense twosomeness. Why aren’t they dating other people?

It’s Jesse who makes the first serious move in that direction, and, as you might predict, Celeste, who prides herself on being totally rational, goes a little wiggy, especially when Jesse’s new girlfriend (Rebecca Dayan) turns out to be much more than a fling.

As I say, this all sounds standard issue, but Jones, who wrote the script with Will McCormack, is very adept at charting the moods of these people. The film is much more about Celeste than it is about Jesse, which may be a disservice to his side of the connubial equation, but it does give us something we don’t often see in the movies: a rom-com breakup scenario from a female point of view.

To Jones’s credit as a writer-performer, she doesn’t turn Celeste into a blithering whiner or a slapstick goofball. Celeste doesn’t renounce her successful career. We are never made to feel that her business smarts are somehow unfeminine or the cause of her unhappiness. What the film is saying, ultimately, is that no one is really at fault in this scenario, least of all Celeste. When she has a fight with Jesse about why they passed on parenthood, she blurts out, “The father of my child will own a car,” and we can sympathize.

Samberg is not in his cutup “Saturday Night Live” mode here, and that’s a tribute to him and his director, Lee Toland Krieger. Samberg knows how to play puppyish and vague without ever losing a sense of who this character really is. Jesse’s sloth is too easily equated with his artistry, of which we see too little, but it’s not unbelievable that he might be a gifted artist. When he discovers that it’s possible to be happy away from Celeste, while still caring deeply for her, he grows in stature before our eyes. And, to her dismay, in Celeste’s eyes, too. She’s glad for him and angry at him, at the same time. Unlike so many standard rom-coms, the film doesn’t back away from these emotional complications. Quite the contrary. It meets them head on.

Celeste tries her own luck in the dating scene and is not unsuccessful – a yoga classmate (Chris Messina) is a particularly engaging prospect – but her emotional trajectory is different from Jesse’s. When she says she’s “not ready,” she means it.

The film could be more crisply directed, with fewer close-ups of the characters bucking up or looking miserable. Samberg is good enough here that one wishes he had more screen time. And there are silly sidebars, like Celeste’s friendship with a Lady Gaga-ish rock star client (Emma Roberts), that don’t really go anywhere.

But this is a “personal” movie in a typically impersonal genre. And it gets at the way women, newly arrived on the dating scene and all their defenses down, can be stupefied by men. It’s as if we were watching one of those buddy-buddy bromances told, this time, from the perspective of the woman who is normally on the sidelines of the men’s attentions and affections. It’s a welcome angle. Grade: B+ (Rated R for language, sexual content, and drug use.)

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