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MovieJay vs ‘Celeste and Jesse Forever’

I hate to have to play Andy Rooney on this one, but here goes: What is so wrong with being alone? Getting to know yourself? Dating yourself, even?

I felt a restlessness at my core as I took in Celeste and Jesse Forever. I wanted to yell at the screen, “Know thyself!”. By the end, the lead character must have heard me but by then I was just about past the point of caring for this amiable-enough indie dramedy.

It stars Parks and Rec regular Rashida Jones as Celeste, who co-wrote this along with Will McCormack, who stars in a supporting role here as the pot dealer Skillz. Jones may seem unfamiliar to you until this movie because she usually plays “the friend” or the disapproving gf/wife role. Here she is front and center in just about every scene of this movie and I liked watching her so much that I wanted to see her doing something better with her time than picking through her soon-to-be ex-husband’s garbage.

Andy Samberg, the young SNL expat, is Jesse. He and Celeste have been together since 10th grade, went to college together, got married young, and are now 30 and have found that their lives are going in different directions. Celeste is being described in other reviews as a type “A” personality. Funny, I didn’t know that we had lowered the bar for folks out there who wish to have a job and some goals in life. If that’s what type “A” means, than count me in!

She works at a marketing outfit as a trend-forecaster–a depressing job in my mind that made me recall Thoreau’s passage about an encounter with a seller of baskets in which he wonders aloud about the necessity in having to not sell stuff. Of course, the movie doesn’t dig too deep about how she feels about her career–one in which she gets pissed all over by a self-absorbed Ke$ha-type starlet that her firm represents–since we’re in a movie that desperately tries to avoid having to deal with real things in order for it to remain a comedy.

Jesse, on the other hand, is a slacker who mooches off his wife. He’s an apparent artist, though we never see him at work on anything except for a misadventure with an IKEA drawer with impossible instructions. Maybe it’s that he was trying to understand Spanish. He lives in her house, or rather, he used to live in her house until they split. Now he lives in his studio in the back, something Celeste has obviously allowed for because they’re still on friendly terms, though it grows more apparent as we get to know them that she’s being passive-aggressive, hoping that the situation makes him grow up.

We enter the movie at about 6 months into this arrangement. At a dinner get-together with best friends Beth and Tucker (Ari Graynor and Eric Christian Olsen), Celeste and Jesse carry on as though nothing is wrong, like they’re best friends as usual. It annoys the hell out of Beth to hear them carrying on like adolescents, so she speaks her mind, gets up, and walks out. What? Isn’t a divorcing couple allowed to be amicable? To us, it just seems like they know they’re meant to be buddies, not lovers, and especially not a wedded couple.

But soon, their problematic dynamic surfaces as Celeste finds it bothersome that all Jesse seems capable of doing is eating cereal while playing video games all day.

At that point in the film I was hopeful, but then the narrative becomes an exercise in piling on one distraction after another in the form of a multitude of characters who our two likeable leads are forced to have to not only listen to, but then to follow their stupid advice, because this is after all a quirky indie comedy, remember.

There’s the aforementioned pot dealer Skillz and Celeste’s best friend Beth, but then there is also the requisite sassy gay co-worker friend Scott (Elijah Wood). “It’s time to get your fuck on”, Scott proclaims but not before being ironic when he says that he was just supposed to say that because that’s what the sassy gay co-worker friend does. Note: just because you’re aware of rom-com cliches, doesn’t mean you’re above and beyond them by the fact that you’re pointing them out! They want her to move on and start dating, and she does, to typically disastrous effect. What’s worse is that it’s played for screwball laughs at times, making it uneven at best and awkward at worst.

Meanwhile, Jesse has a one-nighter with a hot babe who’s been into him for awhile, he gets her preggers, and they decide to stick it out as a couple and make the best of it. One line of dialogue also ends up covering Jesse’s artistic endeavors, which have been picked up by a curator for a gallery. Good for him, but bad for us because we never get to see any of his new life, one which has moved forward so quickly and assuredly that I had a hard time buying into it.

Rashida Jones has all the right ingredients to be a star: she’s gorgeous, has good comic timing, is sophisticated but with a common touch. The problem here is that I didn’t like this as a vehicle for her, or for Andy Samberg for that matter, and that’s because other characters keep getting in the way of them dealing with their divorce. I like Chris Messina (Midnight in Paris, The Newsroom) as the best dating possibility for her post-divorce, but even then, the first scene they have together irked me. He’s a nice man here, and approaches her in a way that most women would find inoffensive, and she proceeds to cut him down. In real life, the person on the receiving end has a good case to be able to respond with, “Go fuck yourself, lady”, but not in this movie, because remember, it’s a quirky indie comedy!

To be fair, she ends up seeing the guy more than once, and she finally has a great epiphany about herself during karaoke with him, but by that point I was feeling jerked around by meeting new characters every 5 minutes and by the fact that even though this is a purported indie project, it follows the time-honored tradition of Hollywood movies that says you’re not much of anything if you’re not in a successful relationship, something that grates on my nerves.

Not one friend of hers seemed to have the self-awareness to say, “Take your time. You and Jesse have been together half of your lives. Get to know yourself! Travel! Evaluate your life. Examine it! Fall in love with yourself again before you fall haphazardly for someone else!”.

Celeste and Jesse Forever is filled with actors we come to like, and I liked the musical score with its funny-sad pull on our heartstrings. But as far as anything coming close to “independence”, this movie is assembled from the parts of 100 other movies that have nothing to do with independence and everything to do with the subtle prejudice that says happiness comes from someone else’s approval. Well, it doesn’t, and it’s too bad this movie couldn’t figure that out from the beginning. Now that would have made for a promising independent dramedy.

**½ (out of 4)