What’s an almost perfect couple to do if the relationship works, but their marriage doesn’t? Divorce, of course, but stay best friends. The breezy, ironic indie “Celeste and Jesse Forever,”starring Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg, attempts to figure out if that’s even possible.
Written by Jones and Will McCormack, who plays a stoner buddy, the romantic comedy is loosely based on their own experiences of dating and trying to remain friends after the breakup. Jones and McCormack worked their way through the issues by writing the screenplay, their first. For Jesse (Samberg) and Celeste (Jones), it’s a tougher ride.
Directed with a light touch by Lee Toland Krieger (“The Vicious Kind”), the film starts by dropping us into an ordinary day in Jesse and Celeste’s life where it is possible to see the bones of contention right away. She’s in a smart suit — pencil skirt, tailored jacket, stilettos — slipping into the car after a day of work at her marketing firm. He looks like he just rolled off the couch after a day of playing video games.
The cell rings, he answers, it’s awesome news. Relatively speaking. She’d been hoping for a job offer that would end his unemployment. Instead it’s a surfing pal letting Jesse know if he heads to the beach, like right now, he can still catch some great waves. She smiles. He grins. Awesome indeed.
This first glimpse at the wedge that is dividing them is also the first clue that the film will at least try to avoid typical romantic comedy convention. For once, the woman is allowed to be an A-type success without any suggestions that she must, by extension, be a “B”-type woman too. Certainly in Jones’ hands, Celeste is very likable. Jesse’s not a total jerk either.
Marriage itself serves as the framing device for everything in the movie. In that, the story turns more traditional. Jesse and Celeste were high school sweethearts who wed young — she grew up, he didn’t, now they’re divorcing. They are slated to be best man/woman at their close friends’ coming nuptials — another almost perfect couple, Tucker (Eric Christian Olsen) and Beth (Ari Graynor). The rest of the narrative winds around those opposite poles — one marriage happily approaching, another sadly falling apart.
The comedy and the drama mostly reside in the coming apart stage as Jesse and Celeste finally try going solo, which means they start dating other people. Chris Messina (“Julie & Julia,””Greenberg”), who is turning up as “the other guy, the brother, the best friend” to great effect in more and more films, is charming as Paul, a decent sort who might be the one to win Celeste’s heart the second time around.
Jesse, despite his flaws, is a tough act to follow, but then sweet dorky guy is a Samberg specialty. Much of the comic’s time at”Saturday Night Live,”a seven-year run that ended this season, was spent doing variations on that theme. Unlike “SNL,” where the dork is always going for the joke, Samberg pulls himself back from the slapstick and finds some emotional depth as he takes on Jesse’s increasingly grown-up problems.
He and Jones, real-life friends who run in some of the same comedy circles, make the interplay between Jesse and Celeste feel easy and real. There is chemistry of a more combustible sort between Celeste and Riley (an excellently petulant Emma Roberts), a bratty young star who is a lucrative new client for Celeste’s pop-culture branding business. She brings a few additional oil-and-water relationship lessons for Celeste to learn.
The movie, though, ultimately rests on Jones’ very slim shoulders. She is emerging as someone who does indeed have the chops to carry a film. As Celeste swings from gently letting Jesse down to throwing herself a pity party once she realizes he might actually be gone, Jones shows off that range nicely.
There are moments when the film is a little too precious, taking time to preen at just how clever it is. And Krieger lets things get too loosey-goosey along the way. But more often than not “Celeste and Jesse Forever” delivers an affectionate and intelligent look at how even the closest couples can find that breaking up is so very hard to do.