BFI London Film Festival 2012 – ‘Celeste & Jesse Forever’ succeeds as neither romance nor comedy

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Celeste & Jesse Forever
Written by Will McCormack, Rashida Jones
Directed by Lee Toland Krieger
USA, 2012

Love in the 21st century seems to follow two distinct strains when it comes to the movies. First, there’s the standard issue romantic comedy, the mildly insulting, light and eminently predictable vehicle, usually starring a Jennifer of the Aniston or Lopez variety, or Katherine Heigl if they’re not available. In these placid, family friendly, pastel-plotted filler films, the course of true love will never run true, with some lightly humorous ups and downs punctauted with the odd weepy montage, but the final reel will inevitably involve a last minute resolution of the affairs of the heart, a dreamy reconciliation with Matthew McConaughey / Gerald Butler / Justin Timberlake / Vince Vaughan (delete as applicable). The second strain to emerge over the past decade takes a more oblique viewpoint on what allegedly makes the world go round, sometimes employing some mild experimentation of the narrative form peppered with X-rated dialogue, a more risque attitude to sex and marinating the comedic situations in the fulcrum of embarrassment, in both social situations (usually weddings, barbecues or the bookshops for some literary reason) and professional situations (the office, work nights out, a conference or two). There is also usually a gay character of either sex just to prove the progressive attitudes of the this more hip film-making crowd, a similar role to how your best friend or professional colleague had to be an African American or Latino boss / partner / lawyer back in the Eighties.

Step forward Celeste & Jess Forever. Best friends since childhood, Celeste (Rashida Jones) works in the facile LA entertainment industry and is an ambitious, popular and driven young woman, while Jesse (Andy Samburg) is the quintessential struggling (or rather lazy) artist, happy to mooch around the long summer days as he awaits inspiration for his craft, working up to his first installation  – so far, so normal. But the oblique angle in this case is that both parties are six months into a separation of their six year marriage, still living together in separate portions of the conjugal home. They remain firm friends, attend functions and boozy sessions as if nothing had happened, still caring for each other but no longer intertwined in that intimate, romantic way. Eventually their lives begin to move on and the inevitable cracks begin to strain their relationship, Jesse bedding down with a one night stand he has inadvertinently made pregnant, developing a new sense of adult maturity and ambition he never displayed during his years with the quietly seething Celeste. Will they reconcile or successfully move into this new phase of their lives?  And could Elijah Wood as Celeste’s gay boss be even more obviously shoehorned into the movie?

The problem with this film that no matter which different approach you take to the subject matter the essential components of a romantic comedy would seem to involve at least a smattering of a) romance and b) comedy.  To be fair there is the odd chuckle to be had as Jesse and Celeste torment themselves throughout their post marriage fallout but they are simply too few and far between to prevent you checking your watch as the film unspools. Crucially Jesse is sidelined as the male character, he vanishes for long stretches of the movie and you never get any idea of his temperament or affection through Samburg’s rather bland and immediately forgetable performance, this seems much more of a vanity project for Jones who also co-wrote and produced the film. It’s something of a mystery then that she would place a series of obstacles to likability when you make your central heroine a media ‘trend analyst’ with a superiority complex who has recently published a book hilariously named ‘Shitegeist’, as much as Jones is a funny and talented actress with her singular ‘journey of discovery’ through the film it’s at times a fairly hard slog, although I would single out her wedding speech at her best friends nuptials as the highlight of the film. She must have her arc of course and learn to be a better person – mostly through the management of a teenage Lady Gaga clone she account manages through her worthless day job – but there is little of the gentle charm, comedic or otherwise that we’ve seen her display in other affairs. Like the vacuous LA culture it occassionaly seeks to decry Celeste & Jess Forever is hollow and immediately forgetful.

– John McEntee

The 56th BFI London Film Festival runs Oct. 10th  – 21st.  Learn more about Celeste & Jesse Forever.


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