‘Celeste and Jesse Forever’: Love don’t last

July 30, 2012

There inevitably will be comparisons between “Celeste and Jesse Forever” and “(500) Days of Summer,” and that’s not a bad thing.

Both are about intense relationships between young adults that end – and yet go on. Both are stories of love that has grown one-sided. And both ache with the unavoidable self-pity that goes along with that kind of situation – while finding the laughs in that same circumstance.

Written by two of the film’s stars, Rashida Jones and Will McCormack, and directed by Lee Toland Krieger, “Celeste and Jesse Forever” shows us the title characters’ happy days of marriage in a slide-show of still photographs under the opening credits.

But the film’s real premise becomes clear in the first scene, as the titular couple (played by Andy Samberg and Jones) have dinner with a pair of soon-to-be-married friends, Beth (Ari Graynor) and Tucker (Eric Christian Olsen). Celeste and Jesse giggle and goof around, making personal in-jokes while perusing the menu – until Beth explodes.

She’s upset because, in fact, Celeste and Jesse have been separated for six months and are on track toward a divorce. But they seem to spend so much time together that they might as well still be married. Indeed, Jesse is living in the art studio he’s created in the guesthouse behind the house he and Celeste used to share.

Jesse is a man-child, an artist who doesn’t own a car, hold a steady job or finish any of the art assignments that might earn him a living. Celeste, on the other hand, is a professional pop-culture trend analyst and consultant who runs a branding business with her best friend Scott (Elijah Wood). She’s responsible, driven and intent on winning any argument she might find herself in. And that disconnect in their personalities, which both of them lived with for years, finally proved too much, even for a couple who are best friends.

Is it time to move on? Apparently. Yet both Celeste and Jesse secretly assume that the other will change enough for them to give it another shot. Life, however, has a way of intervening.

They’re both dating (a little) but Celeste doesn’t take it seriously. Neither does Jesse – until a hook-up with a woman he hit it off with turns into an unexpected pregnancy.

Jesse decides to try to make it work with this new woman, who is pretty and less high-maintenance than Celeste. Celeste tries to tell him – and herself – that she’s totally cool with the idea of moving on. But the notion of Jesse moving on without her – and her having no honest interest in relaunching her life – throws her.

She goes into a tailspin for a while, smoking pot, drinking too much and generally alarming her friends. She denies that anything is wrong but this is obviously a woman sorely in a state of denial.

Two people help to slowly wise her up: a new guy she meets, Paul (Chris Messina), and a new client, a skanky pop star named Riley (Emma Roberts). They both have the distance to offer some truths that the people closest to her can’t or won’t get her to see.

Krieger finds a way to keep the tone light without losing sight that this is a story of emotional devastation. Not devastation as in a sudden disintegration, but, rather, as a slow-motion wave that keeps rising around Celeste. She refuses to acknowledge that the water is getting higher, even as it’s touching her chin.

Jones and McCormack (he plays a very funny weed-dealer friend of the couple) do offer some of Jesse’s perspective – as the Peter Pan forced suddenly to grow up and have adult concerns. There’s enough of him to keep the viewer interested – and to keep Celeste convinced that, just maybe, she still has a chance.

Jones, so good on “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation” playing straight-man roles, here gets to show some range as a comedian (and a writer). This is a woman who can’t acknowledge her own pain – and, once she does, can’t do anything about it. It’s a story of growth but, in Jones’ hands, that process is painfully funny.

Samberg exhibits a depth as an actor that heretofore has been hidden, if only by the limited range of the material he’s been given in movies and on “Saturday Night Live.” He captures the confusion, the lingering feeling for Celeste and excitement and fear at launching something new.

“Celeste and Jesse Forever” is less a date movie than a chick flick, if only because it may inspire the kind of relationship conversations that guys rarely want to have. But even guys will feel for Celeste and chuckle along with her.

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