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Non-Review Review: Celeste & Jesse Forever

While it’s not quite as novel as the core idea might suggest, Celeste & Jesse Forever has a fascinating central concept. Most romances leave off after the initial courtship – the “and they lived happily ever after” all but printed at the bottom of the end credits. Celeste & Jesse Forever offers a somewhat skewered take on that. We begin at the end of a marriage, and follow the two central characters as they try to deal with living apart from one another. The movie isn’t as subversive as it could be, working hard to integrate conventional romantic formulas into this new framework, but it is something a bit different – and the concept carries it quite far. A winning central performance from Rashida Jones and a charming sense of humour help keep the movie interesting, even if it never quite commits fully.

Celeste & Jesse Forever is well worth a look, if only to demonstrate that there is room to tinker with the conventional formula for romantic comedies.

The long kiss goodnight...

The long kiss goodnight…

The premise of Celeste & Jesse Forever promises something quite bold and a little bit innovative. Between Celeste & Jesse Forever and The Five-Year Engagement, is it possible that we’re seeing a slight shift in the portrayal of romantic relationships? The Five-Year Engagement charted a relationship after than initial romance had swept the leads off their feet, and found two people struggling to co-exist while satisfying their own independent needs and desires. Celeste & Jesse Forever similarly probes the question of what happens after the end credits role on a conventional romantic comedy.

In particular, Celeste & Jesse Forever teases an exploration of what a Judd Atapow style relationship – what has been described as a “slacker-striver” dynamic – might look like if it endured past the heart-touching finalé? What happens when the slacker doesn’t change in order to provide the support that his lover needs? What happens when the striver can’t get past those countless little flaws that add up in such a way as to neutralise the endearing charm of the man-child? One assumes that the two can fully reconcile their differences – perhaps because we’ve seen them cross a major hurdle or two in their courtship – but what if they can’t?

'Til death (or the plot) do us part...

‘Til death (or the plot) do us part…

It’s a fascinating jumping-off point, and a lot of it seems quite logical. Over the course of the film, we see why the eponymous couple can’t really work, as much as they might love and enjoy one another. Jesse will always see his creativity tempered by his irresponsibility, while Celeste will never be able to completely accept Jesse as who he is, and allow herself to be completely comfortable with them. Rashida Jones and co-star Andy Samberg work well enough together that you can sense the attraction, but there’s also just a hint that chemistry is slightly off. It’s a very tough dynamic to get entirely right, and Jones and Samberg do great work.

In particular, Jones pretty much carries the film. She’s a stronger performer than Samberg, but the script also seems to pivot around her character. Jesse’s character development happens early on in the movie, and mostly off-screen. We’re simply asked to accept that he has changed, and Samberg does a decent enough job convincing us that he has grown up. A little bit. On the other hand, we follow Celeste as she copes with the situation, and Jones is charged with bringing the character to life in a way that never seems ridiculous or over-the-top, suggesting that Celeste has her own problems, but without rendering her unsympathetic.

The next step in their relationship...

The next step in their relationship…

Given that a lot of romantic comedies revolve around female characters effectively learning to accept their lovers as they are (The Bounty Hunter, for example, 27 Dresses, The Ugly Truth), it’s nice to see a movie centred around a female character who feels relatively three-dimensional and who has to learn more than to accept the male lead for “who he is.” Celeste isn’t necessarily the strongest or most ideal female character, but she feels organic and natural in a way that few female lead characters do. Jones invests her with a complexity and humanity that is often absent from films like this.

Still, there are problems. Celeste & Jesse Forever doesn’t quite live up to the promise inherent in the premise. Despite a relatively novel starting point, the script follows a fairly conventional structure, with two very clear (and quite predictable) arcs for the title characters. One of the characters messes up, the other is upset – then there’s a reversal. There’s a lot of “will they/won’t they” tension, which feels strangely familiar despite the novelty of the fact it is “will they get back together?” rather than “will they get together in the first place?”

The married Celeste...

The married Celeste…

Things do feel a little too neat at times. When new characters appear, it’s easy enough to figure out how they fit in the structure of the narrative, and where they will likely be at the end of the film. The cast is charming enough to make it work, and to convince you to look past some of the familiar plot devices and set-ups (yes, there is the mandated heart-felt speech at a wedding and more than a couple of typically juvenile gags). And, to be fair, even those recognisable ingredients are generally carried off with enough charm (if not innovation) to make them far more comfortable than they might otherwise be.

Celeste & Jesse Forever is a charming romance. It might not make the most of its intriguing central concept, but it is witty and sincere enough that it works anyway. Jones makes a fantastic lead, with a reliable supporting cast built up around her, including Andy Samberg, Emma Roberts, Elijah Woods and Chris Messina. It’s a solidly entertaining take on the romantic movie, with a fantastic core idea that isn’t executed as finely as it could have been.

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