Sunday, September 9, 2012

Celeste & Jesse Forever (***)

Directed by Lee Toland Krieger


Rashida Jones has been one of the loveliest supporting figures in movies for about five years now. I remember seeing her for the first time on The Office, but it was small roles in films like Our Idiot Brother and The Social Network, as well as larger parts in I Love You, Man that really caused her to pop out to audiences and she's been a very reliable screen presence. Beautiful without being overbearing, modest without seeming standoffish. Truth is, in most of her roles she just hasn't been on the screen long enough for viewers to really see her flaws. In Celeste & Jesse Forever, from a screenplay she co-wrote with Will McCormack, she allows the cracks to show in what is easily the best role of her still young career.

Jones plays the lead role of Celeste, a successful trend forecaster for a hip marketing agency who just published a book named "Shitegeist" about pop culture. Her and her husband, Jesse (Andy Sandberg), are best friends who still enjoy the same inside jokes that they did when they first met. They spend almost every moment together when they're not working. There's only one problem: they've been separated for months and are soon to be divorced. Their friends and family cannot understand how they can continue to be such close friends and even live in the same house (Jesse sleeps in a studio on the other side of the house), and still think that they are ready to be apart.

Celeste cannot understand how their friends wouldn't be happy to see their relationship end so amicably. I mean, after all, they no longer fight all of the time in front of them and none of their friends have to pick sides. What's wrong with that? Still, her best friend Beth (Ari Graynor) insists that their behavior is unhealthy. It's particularly distressing since Jesse still sees their closeness of proof that Celeste still holds some feelings for him. But all that said, Celeste is borderline pushy in her attempts to help Jesse move on, but still willing to let him stay in their home until he's ready to get his own place.

But then Jesse meets someone, a Belgian woman named Veronica (Rebecca Dayan), and becomes serious, more serious than any relationship Celeste or Jesse ever imagined when they split. Jesse moves out and they begin to see less and less of each other. Suddenly, he's the one asking when they can sign the divorce papers. It's only then that Celeste begins to realize that life without the biggest love of her life is not as easy as it could be. Formerly able to juggle various projects for her job, exercising and a social life, amongst many other things, everything is turned upside down as she does her very best to suppress the heartbreak that is obvious to almost everyone else.

Celeste & Jesse is a film that rings with evidence of novice filmmaking. Director Lee Toland Krieger's intimate, handheld style does not always mesh with the occasional broad comedy stylings that Jones and McCormack draw. There are times when it seems like the writers and director were trying to make two different films. But it's all saved, I feel, by the performance from Jones. She's made a career off of playing the women of wisdom - the one that all of the other distressed characters came to in order to make sense of all their avalanching troubles. Consider the great final scene in The Social Network, or numerous times on the fantastically funny television show Parks and Recreation. She plays a similar character in this film, but what happens when that person needs help for themselves?

There's always that one friend amongst them all who seems so well balanced and put together that no one would even know how to console them if they ever needed it. Beth and other friends can only watch Celeste as she falls forward into a downward spiral, because how do you try to make a close friend feel better when you've never had any practice with them? Celeste's life has been working so easily for her, that she was almost convinced that she would be the first person to move on from the separation. When that doesn't happen, and she suddenly realizes that she's the hold-up in the impending divorce, well, that's just not something that she's ready to handle.

There are several good supporting performances. A sparky Emma Roberts plays a trashy pop singer which Celeste's company begrudgingly works with (and who has a surprising turn of character), and Chris Messina plays Paul, a nice guy who's willing to give Celeste a nice time if she's willing to stand up and move on. Andy Sandberg, of SNL and Lonely Island fame, brings unexpected degrees of humanity to Jesse, and his humor balances off of Jones' dry wit almost perfectly. But this is definitely Jones' show. Like Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids last year, she's proving that funny, talented women can be the centerpieces of successful films if they brings incite and nuance. Funny women shouldn't try to replicate men, which is why Wiig and Jones succeed.

Celeste & Jesse is not a perfect movie. It hits the same points repeatedly, and Celeste's flip-flop emotions becomes redundant at times in Krieger's attempt to make the film another hip, indie dramedy. The truth is, the movie is a lot closer to Bridesmaids than, say, Like Crazy which is what it feels like in visual tone. Rashida Jones, though, understands perfectly what the film needs from her and executes a near-perfect performance filled with so many contradicting emotions. It's easy to watch this film and get annoyed at Celeste, until you realize how many people are exactly like her. People always have a certain strong image of themselves until they have their heart smashed on. It might take a few mistakes for you as well until you can get back on your feet.

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