“Likable” might not be the first word that comes to mind when you imagine a semi-romantic comedy about a pair of divorcing thirtysomethings, but it might be just the word for Celeste and Jesse Forever. Writer and star Rashida Jones, who’s arguably most familiar from Parks and Recreation, turned what could have been a one-note role in I Love You Man into an actual character, and has a slippery, almost prickly warmth; she radiates a sense that she’s a lot of fun to be around until you piss her off. Here, she’s equal parts charming and frustrating, a flawed and slightly uptight trend forecaster whose marriage — to artist Jesse (Andy Samberg, nicely mellow) — has, at the start of the film, already fallen apart.
It’s a clever choice to start at the end. The credits play over a montage of Celeste and Jesse’s early years, and when we reach the present, they seem perfectly comfortable, their relationship a mishmash of conversational shorthand, goofy running jokes, genuine affection and the easy habits of longtime companionship. It’s not until their friend Beth (Ari Graynor) freaks out at them over dinner that we learn they’re technically separated.
Celeste and Jesse Forever never offers a simple reason for this split, and it never has to: As easy as the title characters can be, they’ve clearly slipped in opposite directions. She’s successful, opinionated and outgoing; he’s a struggling artist with a quiet side. Their familiarity masks a hard-to-describe — and hard to cinematically display — disquiet that comes when nothing is wrong and nothing is exactly right, either. Jones and her cowriter Will McCormack (who plays the couple’s stoner buddy, Skillz) have set themselves a considerable task: Their story needs to be compelling despite being about a relationship that’s anything but, and their characters need to be interesting and sympathetic even when they’re turning nasty and falling apart.
They pull it off with a light touch, a careful measure of comedy and cringe, and the occasional moment of too-cuteness. Celeste and Jesse occasionally veers toward humiliation comedy, but it always manages to ground those moments in believability and turn even briefly seen characters into important foils for its central couple. (Emma Roberts is particularly perfect as a sullen teen pop star.) The film is full of close-ups on Jones’ liquid expressions, which slip easily between sulk and room-brightening smile; it’s really her story, but Samberg’s Jesse gets just enough screen time, and character growth, that we can see them slipping apart and pulling themselves together.
Mostly, the film succeeds because it doesn’t paint in broad strokes. Celeste is career-focused, but the movie never tells us she can’t have it all because she cares about her job; when she screws up at work, she’s in trouble, but life isn’t capital-O over. Friends get mad at each other; people do stupid things and are forgiven; people do stupid things and maybe don’t quite get entirely forgiven, but their friends know how to at least let it go. Mainstream romantic comedies have taught us to expect the overwrought and the overwritten, and to accept a level of grandiosity that has little to do with how people really interact. Celeste and Jesse isn’t looking to wow you; it’s just looking to charm (sweetest breakup comedy ever?) and maybe asking you to think a little bit about how sometimes relationships end not because you don’t love the other person, but because you can’t love them the same way anymore.
CELESTE AND JESSE FOREVER: Directed by Lee Toland Krieger. Written by Rashida Jones and Will McCormack. Cinematography, David Lanzenberg. Editor, Yana Gorskaya. Music, Zach Cowie and Sunny Levine. Starring Rashida Jones, Andy Samberg, Ari Graynor, Eric Christian Olsen, Elijah Wood, Chris Messina and Emma Roberts. Sony Pictures Classics, 2012. R. 92 minutes. Three and a half stars.