Celeste (Rashida Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg) have what appears at first to be the perfect modern relationship. The two have known each other since the 10th grade, but never take each other for granted. They’re warm, responsive, and fun-loving, with lots of shared rituals and cutesy little private games. Out to dinner with their best friends (Ari Graynor and Eric Christian Olsen), they talk about what they’re going to order by lapsing into showbiz World War II Chuhmin accents (clearly a favorite routine of theirs), which allows them to tweak each other’s foibles — like who’s going to do more mooching off the other’s plate — while keeping the interaction light. These two are so funny and affectionate, so made for each other, they’re not just friends or lovers. They seem more like newlyweds. And by the way… they’re getting divorced.
Huh? Celeste and Jesse Forever throws us that curveball early on, and it establishes the movie as a romantic comedy powered by a question as novel and provocative as the one that drove When Harry Met Sally…: Can a man and woman be friends? The question here is more along the lines of: Can a man and woman who were more than friends realize they still might be? So why are Celeste and Jesse splitting up? We hear the rationale in bits and pieces, and it doesn’t sound all that major — mostly issues of unequal careers. She’s a celebrity trend-spotter, he’s a gifted graphic artist who’s doing…not much. He’s a passive underachiever.
Initially, I fought the film’s premise. I thought: Couldn’t Jesse try a bit harder? Couldn’t the two get some couples therapy? That, however, is all part of the movie’s design. Even when Celeste and Jesse start dating other people, they are still hooked on each other — and maybe that’s what they need to let go of. We’re not quite certain, since Andy Samberg and Rashida Jones forge a connection so rich in chemistry and personal nuance. Samberg, taking on his first role that’s more dramatic than comedic, is intensely compelling; he uses his big, wide, open features to play Jesse as a dude bristling with an ironic cleverness that can’t mask his feelings. And Jones, who was so winning in I Love You, Man, makes Celeste a study in engagingly high-functional yuppie self-delusion. She wants to control everything, including her romantic impulses. Only that’s not how it works.
Celeste and Jesse Forever bounces along with nimble invention, from a photo montage that colors in an entire romantic history to the hilarious scene in which Celeste, increasingly jealous, gets caught going through Jesse’s garbage can. I won’t even hint at what happens, since the movie keeps taking us, like its characters, by surprise. I will say that it’s been a while since a romantic comedy mustered this much charm by looking this much like life. A-