The primary objective for the protagonists of romantic comedies isn’t to defeat a villain but to attain love, winning over a possible partner by clearing a number of obstacles. The necessity of such obstacles to pad out the film often results in two characters who are suitably matched being kept apart by simple misunderstandings that could be easily resolved by a phone call.
The problem with this structure is that while it’s emotionally satisfying to watch two attractive people flirt and fight their way towards a reconciliation at an airport, it bears absolutely no resemblance to an actual relationship between actual people. At best, it only manages to rosily cover the shallow, early part of a relationship, whilst at worst it makes people feel that every moment in a relationship should feel like the third act of a movie rather than something that requires dedication, patience and understanding. Therefore it’s refreshing whenever any halfway-mainstream film manages to treat both its characters and its audience like adults. Luckily, Celeste and Jesse Forever is one of those films.
Starring and co-written by Rashida Jones, Celeste and Jesse Forever follows childhood friends-turned-spouses Celeste and Jesse (Andy Samberg) as they make their way through the challenges of a divorce. The film perceptively captures the confusing, painful process of being newly single after a long-term relationship, particularly in how Celeste and Jesse relate to each other: the awkwardness in knowing someone in a new context after being so close, the scary-but-exciting pleasure in trying on new identities, the strangeness in seeing the other person do the same.
Jones and Samberg are both wonderful in their roles; warm and believable as a couple with a long shared history who now feel awkward being in the same room. The viewer’s engrained instincts might want them to get back together, but the film does a good job of showing why it’s better for both of them that they don’t, even though it’s an upsetting truth for both of them.
As well-observed as Celeste and Jesse Forever can be, however, the film is hampered by an early development that causes a disparity between Celeste and Jesse. While it gives an opportunity for Jones and co-writer Will McCormack (who plays Samberg’s drug-dealing best friend) to explore what it’s like to lag behind in the race to move on, it means that Samberg’s character stops developing in order to become an unreachable symbol of the closure Celeste can’t attain.
Jesse’s emotional leapfrogging is plausible but it means that for much of the film he has little to do other than be disappointed in Celeste as she spirals out of control. As a result the film falls apart towards the end along with Celeste, as her desperation takes her to a low that’s reminiscent of Kristen Wiig’s nadir in Bridemaids.
Celeste’s anguish is imprudently exaggerated for comic effect, but to Jones and McCormack’s credit the film is never less than honest about a state of despondency that most people have to suffer through at least once in their life. In a world where the average romantic comedy finishes just as a couple gets together, it’s invigorating to watch a film that sees a relationship through to its bitter end, and then keeps going.
Celeste and Jesse Forever was screened at the BFI London Film Festival.