Ever since “When Harry Met Sallyâ€¦,” romantic comedies like to explore the age-old question: can men and women just be friends? The arthouse-y romantic comedy “Celeste and Jesse Forever” may not stray completely off the grid from conventional, studio-produced romantic-comedies, but the smart, fresh screenplay by real-life best friends Rashida Jones and Will McCormack refuses to compromise its intelligence and has been enfused with more relatable truths than the wheel-spinning genre is known for having. What a concept!
When we first find Celeste (Rashida Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg), they’re already friends . . . best friends since 10th grade actually, and now married. They’re so affectionate and simpatico that they’ll hand-sign hearts to one another, do German accents together, and indulge in an inside joke where they pretend to give handjobs to a squeezable tube of lip balm or a baby carrot. Celeste and Jesse spend so much time together, and yet, they have been separated for six months and are on their way to divorce. Their friends, soon-to-be-married couple Beth (Ari Graynor) and Tucker (Eric Christian Olsen), think the relationship is just weird, but Celeste and Jesse just aren’t ready to cut the cord yet. She’s a Los Angeles “trend forecaster” who’s just had her first book published, and he’s an unemployed artist living in her backyard guesthouse. When one of them decides to start dating again, the other isn’t ready to let go.
Celeste has a superiority complex, always thinking she’s right, that the character could’ve came off as a type-A pain in the rump. And Jesse is a bit a man-child, but never a jerk; he just procrastinates on starting his career. The reason these characters are more likable, sympathetic, and immensely appealing than they would sound on paper is a testament to the leads playing them. Jones and Samberg share such a comfortable rapport and effortless chemistry that flashbacks are never necessary. One can just feel their long, intimate history together. Always winning on screen, Jones is finally given the opportunity to both rip into her acerbic side and show some understated depth as a comedic-dramatic actress. Though his screen cohort is clearly the standout, Samberg is still more relaxed and subtle than he’s ever been, showing an impressive range outside of slacker comedies.
Because the movie remains concentrated on Celeste and Jesse, the supporting players still make the most of their archetypal characters. Elijah Wood puts an amusing, unstereotypical stamp on the wisecracking-gay-best-friend role. Emma Roberts has fun playing a petulant Ke$ha-type pop tart but doesn’t go that far over-the-top to be unbelievable and sheds a few surprising layers. Chris Messina, who’s finding more work this year, is charming as Paul, a guy Celeste meets in yoga that meet be able to fill the void of Jesse. Jones’ fellow writer McCormack is also pretty funny as Celeste and Jesse’s friend and pot dealer.
Nearly everything about “Celeste and Jesse Forever” makes it a genuine renovation of the progressively plastic genre. Director Lee Toland Krieger (he of the underappreciated 2009 indie “The Vicious Kind”) shoots the movie in an edgy, rough-around-the-edges sort of way that captures a naturalistic L.A. Even some obscure, interestingly melancholy songs are chosen in place of a poppy soundtrack made up of today’s hottest hits. Jones and McCormack’s script has the outline of a clichÃ©d romantic comedy, but astutely explores the reality of a relationship that’s only stalling both characters’ personal growth.
In the film’s middle section, the film checks into a more wacky place that it didn’t really need. Celeste goes on a few dates that don’t go so hot. At Beth and Tucker’s wedding party, she fills her mouth with hotdogs while smoking a cigarette and then passes out on a pool raft. These scenes aren’t unfunny, but often feel forced compared to the film’s establishment of a realistic tone. In a way, the desperation that Celeste feels makes sense, but her pity party becomes repetitious when it could’ve been tightened. However, there is a speech at a wedding reception that would’ve felt very contrived in another movie, but here, it rings true with a sad honesty.
Refreshingly unpredictable and admirably bittersweet, “Celeste and Jesse Forever” is also romantic and funny, but it feels more like real life than not. That’s right, the central relationship is not always rainbows and unicorns. If no studio film about human relationships can bring out the comfort, longing, and pain better than this indie gem, they might as well go home now.
91 min., rated R.
Grade: B +