One of the hits of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Celeste and Jesse Forever is a romantic comedy in reverse.
The script by Parks and Recreation Star, Rashida Jones (who also plays Celeste) and Will McCormack, which has earned the pair a 2013 Spirit Awards nomination, plays merrily, and without apology, with the hallowed conventions of this much-maligned genre to great effect.
As it crunches gears and hurtles backwards with the sort of witty yet charming abandon that characterises much of the titular couple’s largely congenial relationship, you watch the slow dissolution of a romantic relationship that has its start during their high school days.
The film begins with a montage of still shots that tracks the growth of the couple’s friendship into romance then marriage and finally, although this isn’t revealed till a fraught dinner early in the movie with best friends, Beth (Ari Graynor) and Tucker (Eric Christan Olsen), who are planning their own marriage, their separation.
And what a cleverly scripted reveal it is.
Midway through dinner with their friends, as they are working out what Mexican food to order in fake German accents, and amusing themselves no end in the process, they are stopped by a clearly upset Beth who says “I can’t do this anymore” before storming out of the restaurant.
Shocked at her reaction, which you initially think is simple irritation at their meal-ordering tomfoolery (which is clearly meant to indicate a couple very much in love and at ease with each other), Tucker explains that it’s weird that they are still acting like a real couple when they’ve been separated for six months.
It hasn’t occurred to either of them that it’s odd that they’d not only still be hanging out almost 24/7 with each other but still living in the same house – well sort of; Jesse (Andy Samberg, Saturday Night Live) sleeps in his very bachelor-esque studio out the back – when their marriage has run its course.
But then that lack of awareness speaks to the enduring closeness of the friendship which undergirds their entire relationship, and which defines the way they see each other, their friendships and all their interactions with the outside world.
They are inextricably Celeste and Jesse Forever, and it looks doubtful, even when it’s clear they must do so, that they will be able to pull apart and stand on their own two feet.
But time and events inevitably force them to do just that, but the process is neither pretty nor evenly paced, and there are just as many regretful steps backward as there are faltering steps forward.
The back and forth pull between the two ex-lovers, but enduring best friends, rings true on any number of levels, and illustrates vividly that life is not a series of elegantly-executed, well-thought maneuvers (much as we would like it to be) but a messy melange of half-decisions, backtracks and emotional confusion.
And it’s on this point that you realise that Celeste and Jesse’s friends are completely missing the point.
Yes the marriage is over, and yes Jesse has moved on to the lovely Veronica (Rebecca Dayan) with whom he is having a child, and true Celeste needs to move and finally realise Paul from yoga (Paul Messina) is the one for her, but it’s not as simple as that.
You don’t simply and cleanly end one part of your life and faultlessly commence the next, and Celeste and Jesse Forever isn’t afraid to acknowledge this.
But nor does it shirk from pointing out that difficult though this transition is, that both Celeste and Jesse are refusing to even try, at least initially, to fully commit to the next phases of their lives, all too aware it will be an uncomfortable, awkward and painful separation.
Which is exactly what it is when it finally gets underway.
Celeste handles it in a spectacularly all-over-the-place way getting high once too often with mutual friend and pot dealer Skillz (Will McCormack; co-writer of the screenplay), delivering slightly inappropriate but heartfelt wedding speeches, and accidentally designing a logo for her company’s new signing pop starlet, Riley Banks (Emma Roberts) that looks, ahem, like a penis entering a butt.
Jesse for his part is more low key with his yearning for a return to the closeness of old – falling into bed with Celeste after a night of too much red wine and the creation of robot sculpture from a destroyed IKEA dresser and dropping around one night just to cuddle her – yet it is he who realises first that what they had as married partners at least is gone and it is time, wrenching though it may be, to move on.
But move on they do, through a whole lot of missteps, in jokes, witty humour, and biting regret and they manage what I think is the only scene involving the signing of divorce papers that actually had me cracking a smile.
What makes what is at heart a long and sad pulling part of two once close people (who thankfully manage to retain the friendship that gave birth to the whole romantic mess they are trying to extricate themselves from) work so well is the visible chemistry and witty banter between the two leads.
They are totally believable as close friends with a shared history that will endure long after all their other bonds have been dissolved.
Helping too is the fact that Jones and McCormack wisely don’t portray the two new partners – Veronica and Paul – as crudely drawn cliches who don’t belong anywhere near Jesse and Celeste respectively.
They are rendered as real people who are rightly excited by the possibility of new love which is a refreshing change from the usual lazy tendency to show the other parties in a breakup as idiotic saps who don’t deserve a relationship with anyone, let alone the couple as the centre of the story.
It’s almost like they are “bad” people simply by virtue of being the next partners the two protagonists in a dissolving relationship move on to next.
It marks Jones and McCormack as screenwriters to watch with the emotional insight and ability to render fully fleshed out characters who act in believable real life ways.
And that in the end is what drew me, and will likely draw you, to these two characters, and their associated friends and business colleagues – Elijah Woods is particularly fine as Celeste’s gay friend and business partner Scott who finds it hilariously hard to integrate his “gayness” into any conversation – their realness as people.
They don’t claim to have all the answers, they stumble and fall but they get back up again, laugh and cry about in equal measure, and yes, eventually bow to the inevitable and move on with life, savvy enough to know that the one thing worth holding on to is their friendship.
Celeste and Jesse Forever is a funny, charming, totally real subversion of almost every romantic comedy cliche you can name, buoyed by sterling performances from Samberg and Jones, and a reminder, if we needed one, that while life can be messy and complicated, it’s the important stuff like friendships, and yes love, that usually win out in the end.