The festival has its first crowd-pleaser in CELESTE AND JESSE FOREVER, a light but heartfelt romantic comedy-drama in the Woody Allen vein. Written by Rashida Jones (who also stars as Celeste) and Will Mc McCormack (on hand as well as a supportive weed dealer), it takes a different slant on the usual rom-com by starting the story near the end: Celeste and Jesse (Andy Samberg, making as far as I know his dramatic acting debut), best friends since college, have been married for 6 years and are now in the middle of their divorce.
Notwithstanding their marital status, the two are still tightly bound: they hang out together (and sometimes more), and Jesse still lives in the studio behind Celeste’s house. They think they’re being civilized, and more capable than everyone else around them, but really they’re just holding themselves and each other back from moving on. The problems that broke them up–Celeste is judgmental, Jesse is irresponsible–are an inch below the surface of their relationship, held down by their sheer will.
Director Lee Tolan Krieger, working in a markedly different (and more commercial) key than his indier The Violent Kind, handles the complicated emotions smoothly, and even though the script’s tone varies from physical comedy to serious drama, the picture stays on course. He also has a great cast to work with: Jones finally has a role that shows what she’s capable of handling on screen, Samberg is remarkably controlled and believable for someone who’s previously been a sketch comic, and the supporting performers include Ari Graynor, Elijah Wood, Chris Messina and Emma Roberts.
The picture, which seems guaranteed of finding distribution, could use some tinkering. About halfway through, the balance of the story shifts from Celeste and Jesse to predominantly Celeste, and she has to learn the same life lesson half a dozen times before the movie ends–even though, in real life, we often do need to have things pounded into our thick skulls repeatedly before we really get it, in a movie it can feel repetitive. Also, perhaps out of an imperative to keep the running time below 90 minutes, it feels as though some emotional continuity has been left on the cutting room floor (Roberts, whose characgter has an engaging arc, is reduced to being a plot vehicle).
In a genre that seems confined, more and more, to the formulaic, Celeste and Jesse is both engaging and perceptive, with solid laughs and characters more than skin-deep. It’s a picture that should find a receptive audience.
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