Sundance 2012: CELESTE AND JESSE FOREVER Review

     January 22, 2012

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Rashida Jones is a funny, talented actress who has been confined to supporting roles.  She’s the best friend, the girl-friend, the co-worker, but never the leading lady.  Jones has sought to right that wrong by co-writing herself a fantastic role in the comedy Celeste and Jesse Forever.  The script not only provides a showcase for her dramatic range and comic timing, but also her ability to write hilarious dialogue and situations.  But in a bizarre twist, her performance ends up carrying her script’s stumbling blocks and clumsy ending.  Even when she’s her own worst enemy, Jones comes out the victor.

Celeste (Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg) are lifelong friends who eventually married only to discover that they were unhappy as a married couple.  Much to the frustration and bafflement of their friends, Celeste and Jesse continue to be simpatico and BBFs even though they’re going through a separation and divorce.  Unsurprisingly, their feelings for each other haven’t vanished, but when Jesse tells Celeste that he’s going to have a baby with another woman, she begins to spiral into self-doubt and awkwardly struggles to find a way to move on.

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“Spiraling” and “struggling” aren’t words we tend to associate with light-hearted comedies, and those qualities only begin to weigh down the film in its problematic third act.  The first two-thirds of Celeste and Jesse are delightful.  Jones and Samberg have wonderful chemistry, which is absolutely essential to kicking off the story because if we don’t believe these people love each other, then we wouldn’t care about Celeste losing her best friend and wondering what might have been if they had stayed together.  Samberg, Jones, co-writer and co-star Will McCormack, and director Lee Toland Krieger handle Celeste’s story with a light touch through playful dialogue, brilliant throwaway jokes, a touch of parody, and making sure the dramatic moments are earned rather than forced.

Taking on Celeste’s POV, the movie avoids facing her problems with Jesse head-on for as long as possible.  We spend time having fun with comic moments like Celeste trying to get out of a bad date by saying she accidentally left a candle burning in her house, or how she banters with her gay assistant (Elijah Wood).  There are times when the movie becomes so wrapped up with everyone being witty and urbane that it begins to undermine the emotional impact, but eventually that comedy becomes like water in the desert as Celeste struggles to find closure.

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Again, the movie does a terrific job of getting us into Celeste’s state of mind by having her desperate to move on and we’re desperate to have her move on because the pacing is starting to drag, the humor is starting to fade away, and the character is becoming too much of a neurotic straight woman.  It’s a bit depressing to see someone as professionally successful as Celeste wrap herself up so deeply in her bid to find a new guy even if that guy is meant to replace Jesse rather than be the start of a fresh relationship.  But the movie seriously begins to come apart as it tries to find an ending.  It goes through about five of them before settling on the weakest one.  The different tones do a great job of showing Jones’ range, but they provide an unsatisfying resolution to a story that had dealt with a break-up in such an amusing and charming manner.

Jones carries the movie through every weak moment even if she’s responsible for putting those weak moments down on the page.  Last year, we saw how Kristen Wiig—another comic actress who had been written off into supporting characters—had to create a great lead role for herself and she succeeded brilliantly with Bridesmaids.  Jones has done the same and while her movie isn’t as good as Wiig’s, Celeste and Jesse Forever is where we must accept Rashida Jones as a leading actress.  It’s about damn time.

Rating: B-

For all of our coverage of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, click here. Also, here are links to all of my Sundance reviews so far:

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