"Celeste and Jesse Forever" features all the familiar, tried-and-true romantic comedy trappings.
After the break-up of her marriage, our headstrong, type-A heroine (Rashida Jones) goes on a series of dates with guys who are terrible matches; naturally, there's also a man she meets and instantly clashes with (the suddenly ubiquitous and very good Chris Messina), who will probably end up being Mr. Right by the end.
She has a wisecracking best friend (Ari Graynor) AND a wisecracking gay co-worker (Elijah Wood). She has a demanding career in media (as a trend forecaster) and lives and plays in a trendy, specifically detailed section of Los Angeles (Silver Lake/Echo Park). The script (which Jones co-wrote) features plenty of pop culture references to keep the film rooted in a recognizable, contemporary reality, complete with a Britney Spears-style, bad-girl pop star (Emma Roberts) who functions as Celeste's nemesis.
But ... it only seems like you've seen this movie countless times before.
"Celeste and Jesse Forever" is by no means a parody of romantic comedy cliches, but rather an acknowledgement of them en route to an exploration of greater emotional truths. In the hands of director Lee Toland Krieger, it feels like an art-house version of what is ordinarily a glossy, jaunty genre. In the place of peppy, Top-40 hits to keep the energy high, "Celeste and Jesse Forever" features some unexpected, melancholy musical choices. But this aesthetic approach also includes the use of way too much hand-held camera, which is sometimes distracting when stillness might have served an intimate moment better.
Jones and co-writer Will McCormack, who plays a supporting part as the film's pot dealer/voice of reason, based the script on their realization after just three weeks of dating that they'd be better off as friends. Celeste and Jesse (Andy Samberg) have been together much longer: They fell in love in high school, went to college together and married young. Now that they're 30, the driven Celeste realizes just how different she and her unemployed-artist husband truly are.
At the film's start, they've been separated six months, but Jesse is still living behind their house in the converted garage/studio. And they're still best friends. But their engaged mutual pals (Graynor and Eric Christian Olsen) don't understand this unusual arrangement and urge them to stay together or get divorced once and for all.
"Celeste and Jesse Forever" follows the ways in which they both struggle to make that transition. It feels very truthful in its gray areas, and in depicting the contradiction between the need to move onto something new and the desire to cling to something safe. Even a character's obligatory epiphany in front of a large group of people rings with an unusual amount of honesty, it's so nicely underplayed.
Jones and Samberg have such an easy, goofy chemistry with each other, you could make the argument for their characters to stay together while also understanding why they should probably forge separate lives. Both actors also get a chance to show a deeper, more complex side to their talents beyond the comic roots for which they're known. (Although Jones' dramatic performance is bit more convincing; there's a great groundedness and accessibility about her.)
Watching them together in this setting is reminiscent of the joy of discovering Maya Rudolph and John Krasinski's more serious sides in "Away We Go," the 2009 comic drama from Sam Mendes about a couple expecting their first baby who travel across North America looking for the ideal place to settle down. "Celeste and Jesse Forever" is about a break-up rather than a new beginning, but it's just as much of a welcome surprise.
"Celeste and Jesse Forever," a Sony Pictures Classics release, is rated R for language, sexual content and drug use. Running time: 91 minutes. Three stars out of four.