Thursday, September 13, 2012

In and Out of Love: CELESTE AND JESSE FOREVER


Rather than being lousy and dull all the way through, Celeste and Jesse Forever has the unfortunate disappointment-enhancer of seeming rather promising at the start. The central joke of the film is a funny one. Celeste (Rashida Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg) are best friends, cozily intimate, and giggle their way through countless in-jokes. The problem? They’ve been divorced for six months. That’s a good joke and a fine reverse-rom-com riff, but if you wait around for director Lee Toland Krieger to expand upon that promising nugget, you’ll be waiting a long time. This is a mopey relationship movie about characters dealing with real problems in a film that is content to use them in schematic and dispiriting ways.

Celeste is a successful publicist and author while Jesse is an artistic layabout. She still cares about him, but would really like him out of the house. When he meets a girl and does just that, she’s hurt. There’s real emotion here, but it’s bleached away by all the predictable storytelling machinations from which the film initially seemed to be turning away. There are plot developments that, though I understood why the screenwriting handbook would need them to happen, feel wrong, feel too disruptive to the gentle character work that Jones and Samberg are up to here.

Jones, so good on the essential sitcom Parks & Recreation, co-wrote the movie with Will McCormack (who turns up in a small, likable role as a pot dealer/relationship guru), and together they’ve written themselves some interesting roles. There’s also room around the margins for delightful-in-theory roles for a solid ensemble that includes Ari Graynor, Chris Messina, Emma Roberts, and Elijah Wood. They’re all likable screen presences that aren’t given enough time or good material to make much of an impact. This is a movie about the leads and Jones and Samberg are perhaps too good at selling their chemistry, since the ultimate breakdown of the relationship is only partially and haltingly convincing.

Most unfortunately, Jones and McCormack didn’t write a movie that can capitalize on these characters and the promising setup. At first I was straining to like the film, but as it meandered its way to an unsatisfying conclusion, I just couldn’t keep my enthusiasm from wandering away. Krieger shoots the film in a routine loose way that does the slack plotting no favors, occasionally indulging in visual beauty – a shot of fireworks was rather lovely, if pointless – that only serves to reveal just how empty the whole thing ultimately is. The film coasts on the charms of its cast and the strength of its concept far further than that will actually take it.

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