In addition to the infamous “Bechdel test” about women and movies, cartoonist and author Alison Bechdel once noted that ending a relationship is like separating Silly Putty with your hands; sometimes it snaps cleanly in two, but other times it sags and stretches and becomes impossible to pull apart.
The lead characters in “Celeste & Jesse Forever” are having a very saggy breakup, and the film’s exploration of two best friends learning to live apart starts out crisp but soon slogs down into very familiar territory. Can we request a moratorium on movies about 30-somethings who belatedly enter adulthood? Or at least insist that this story be told in a new way?
Celeste (Rashida Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg) met as teenagers, became best friends and eventually got married. As the film begins, that marriage is essentially over, but they act as though nothing has changed: Jesse has moved into his studio out back, but the two still hang out, drive all over L.A. together and indulge in the same inside jokes and buddy-banter they’ve always enjoyed.
But then Jesse starts dating, and he gets a woman pregnant, and it’s not until he begins to build a post-marriage life that Celeste, a type-A trend forecaster and oft-insufferable smartypants, realizes that it’s time for them both to move on. Cue the inappropriate blind dates, the drunken recriminations, the weepy preparations for a friend’s wedding and just about everything else you would imagine this brand of comedy delivering on a vintage, ironic platter.
It’s a shame that “Celeste & Jesse” plummets into conventionality in its second half — when I reviewed it at Sundance for The Wrap, I had hoped the film’s eventual distributor might tighten up the latter portions — because it starts out so promisingly. Jones (who co-wrote the screenplay with Will McCormack) and Samberg have a funny, prickly rapport that feels wonderfully weird and engaging. (Just watch Paul Schneider and Olivia Munn’s scenes in this week’s “The Babymakers” for a reminder of how elusive that kind of screen chemistry can be.)
When movie characters have shared schtick and a personal language of their own, it can often come off as forced and precious. (See the “aboogeda-boogeda-boogeda-ha-ha-ha!” scenes from “St. Elmo's Fire,” for instance.) But when Jones and Samberg start reading dinner menus with German accents or doing unspeakable things to innocent tubes of lip balm, you get a read on them as witty people who share a long and intimate history.
When the movie separates them, and the two characters have to go off and learn lessons about how to be a grown-up, “Celeste and Jesse” stops being interesting. It’s one thing for a film to start out comedically before exploring darker terrain, but that terrain has to be equally compelling.
Director Lee Toland Krieger (“The Vicious Kind”) does right by his cast, which also includes McCormack (as a drug dealer who lends a sympathetic ear), Eric Christian Olsen and Ari Graynor (the best friends), Elijah Wood (Celeste’s gay work confidant) and Emma Roberts (playing a Ke$ha-esque pop tart with hidden depths). And Krieger and cinematographer David Lanzenberg excel at giving Los Angeles a unique look, capturing the mix of shabby and shiny of the city as experienced by arts-adjacent professionals.
“Celeste & Jesse Forever” heralds Jones and Samberg as a screen team to watch. Next time, one hopes, with a more consistently strong script.