Exes With Benefits in 'Celeste and Jesse Forever'
In Celeste and Jesse Forever, the titular, newly separated female protagonist's unflamboyant queer co-worker (Elijah Wood) tells her, "It's time get your fuck on," and then he immediately apologizes: "Sorry, I was trying to be your saucy gay friend." Co-written by and starring Parks and Recreation straight-woman Rashida Jones, Forever is a notably lo-fi entry into the recent trend of romantic comedies that think acknowledging the genre's clichés is as good as subverting them (see last summer's studio offerings Friends With Benefits and What's Your Number?). Throughout, stereotypes are trotted out so the movie can wink that it's too smart for them.
A couple since puberty, LA thirtysomethings Celeste (Rashida Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg) are in the middle of history's most amicable divorce. They're best friends who still crack each other up with baby-talk in-jokes and can't resist a wine-fueled hookup. So why did they break up? Because Celeste is the type of judgy, materialistic career girl who exists for these films to knock down a peg. Stylish, workaholic girl dumped hoodied man-child because "he doesn't have a checking account or dress shoes." But because her own self-sufficiency is essentially a game of dress-up, she happily lets her soon-to-be-ex-husband live in her guest house; he accepts, pride and privacy be damned, because he's holding out hope for a marital reunion. When Jesse discovers an agreeable one-night stand is pregnant, he makes moves to "man up," moving in with his baby mama and leaving Celeste to face adult life without her co-dependent human security blanket. A branding expert who shoots down a potential suitor by nailing what his lifestyle choices supposedly say about who he is, Celeste is ironically un-self-aware to the point of caricature. Bad dates, intoxicated humiliation, whoops-I-let-boy-trouble-distract-me-at-work professional incompetence, fashion disasters (because ladies, we stop washing our hair when we are sad) and groovy music montages pave the road to her enlightenment.
An indie in evident budget if not in spirit, Forever scores a big "F" on the Bechdel Test, in that its women are almost entirely defined by their relationships with men, even in their conversations with other women. One female antagonist becomes an ally when she needs Celeste's shoulder to cry on after a break-up. The appealing Ari Graynor plays Celeste's supposed female best friend, a relationship that's spoken of occasionally but minimized onscreen—even a set-piece at Graynor's character's wedding seems to exist just to hit a beat in the Celeste and Jesse relationship. Graynor deserves better than second-banana marginalization. So does the charismatically swarthy Chris Messina, who, as the potential love interest whom Celeste ostensibly puts in his place with her knowledge of consumer psychology, has enough of a genuine spark with Jones that he's sorely missed when he disappears for a huge chunk of the movie. As Celeste travels further down a rabbit hole of self-pity, director Lee Toland Krieger turns the subjectivity knob up to 11, meaning that the camera goes out of focus when Celeste has confusing feelings. The character's increasingly clouded mental state seems to dictate the edit, but there's a difference between stoner logic and a scattered narrative in which characters smoke pot a lot.
This review appeared in print as "Rom-Competent: Celeste and Jesse Forever is too scattered to transcend its genre."
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