The first few minutes of “Celeste & Jesse Forever” establish a playful, silly relationship between the twentysomething title characters, portrayed by Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg. They banter like the best of friends, they tease without hurting, and they clearly know each other well. Why, Celeste and Jesse do seem like a couple who will be together forever!
But then we learn the rest of the situation. Celeste and Jesse are actually in the process of getting a divorce, and have been separated for six months. Separated in legal terms, anyway: Jesse, an underemployed artist, is living in a cottage behind his and Celeste’s house, and they continue to spend most of their free time together. This baffles and worries their soon-to-be-married friends Tucker (Eric Christian Olsen) and Beth (Ary Graynor). To put it bluntly — which Tucker and Beth do — it’s weird.
Having trouble giving up an ex even though you know it’s the right thing to do might be weird, but it’s the kind of weird that people can relate to. That honesty is the primary strength of this likable, low-key comedy, which Rashida Jones co-wrote with Will McCormack (who also appears onscreen as a weed dealer named Skillz). We cringe in recognition when Celeste stalks Jesse’s Facebook page to see what he’s doing, or when she casually pumps mutual friends for information on his new girlfriend. Jones and Samberg’s shared knack for coming across as funny, everyday people enhances the subtle feeling that these could be friends of ours.
It was Celeste’s idea to break up, and Jesse, whose immaturity drove her to it, continues to hold out some hope of reconciliation at first — hope that is fostered by occasional relapses into togetherness. The balance of power shifts when Jesse starts seeing someone new: now it’s Celeste who feels left out, leading to some questionable attempts at finding someone of her own. It seesaws like that, with Jesse and Celeste remaining friends (mostly) as they struggle to move past their failed marriage.
When the film gets weaker, it’s because it has moved away from the funny-because-it’s-true aesthetic toward one that’s more broad and contrived: Celeste falling out of a garbage can she was snooping in just as Jesse arrives; a series of bad first dates that become exaggeratedly awful. At times it seems like Jones is attempting the kind of comical self-abasement that Kristen Wiig did so well in “Bridesmaids,” but it never suits her. Jones just isn’t that kind of comedian, at least not yet, and the humiliations she endures here aren’t very funny.
Much more promising is the angle that has Celeste always thinking she’s smarter than everyone and gradually being humbled into realizing that’s not true, in part through her professional experiences (she’s in marketing) with a vapid tween pop star played by Emma Roberts. Despite the two-name title, the film (which was directed by Lee Toland Krieger) is mainly about Celeste’s personal journey, and this aspect of her flawed personality is interesting. But the theme is underdeveloped: it’s not apparent that Celeste has a superiority complex until another character spells it out.
Thematic murkiness aside, the film achieves a mostly successful mix of mainstream and indie sensibilities — hip enough to have street cred, accessible enough to reach an audience outside of art-houses. It’s also a promising first screenplay from Jones and McCormack, two actors with no prior writing credits. May their partnership last forever.
B- (1 hr., 31 min.; )