With Oscar season in gear, I’ve mostly been sticking to reviews of contenders, but this week I take a break and review a movie from possibly my favorite genre: offbeat romance/romantic comedy.
Celeste and Jesse Forever (2012)
Plot: Highschool sweethearts Celeste (Rashida Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg) try to maintain their friendship despite their separation and imminent divorce.
That’s it, more or less. I had no idea what this movie was about when I started it, so immediately I was surprised by the very non-standard plot, as far as romcoms go. In the first ten minutes we see Celeste and Jesse do obnoxious, cute, couple-y shit (at first I wondered if this movie was about how much couples annoy everyone around them), and then our perception of them is turned on its head.
CJF (C&J? C&JF? I’ll stick with CJF) tries to twist the genre around in a lot of different ways, sometimes successfully, sometimes less so. The scene I just mentioned succeeds. A few don’t, namely Celeste’s gay business partner Scott (Elijah Wood). His lines can be cringeworthy, which is a shame because, while Elijah Wood is totally game, the script strikes out.
The script actually has a few problems, despite being very clever as far as romcoms go. First of all, the pacing and focus jump around for a while. At first I was certain this was about Celeste and Jesse (rookie mistake, I know). Then it jumps to being about Jesse. Then it finally finds its focus and rhythm with Celeste. I don’t think a movie is forbidden from focusing on more than one character, but CJF felt more like it had a story and didn’t know how to tell it effectively, and thus shuffled around to the point of view character to get the job done.
But if you can forgive the missteps, there’s a lot to be liked here. While the pacing might not be pitch-perfect, and there are some cliches (this is somewhat a genre movie, after all), the overall story has a lot of surprises. For a movie like this to catch me off guard and make me think, “I did not see that coming” is impressive. CJF did that several times, and even some of the humor surprised me.
The performances carry most of the humor though. While some of Elijah Wood’s lines couldn’t be salvaged, the rest of the cast imbue their characters with nuance and make them feel, dare I say it, human. Rashida Jones in particular takes a script that thinks being human means being a good person for a long period of time and then an idiot for a while after, and manages to make us sympathize with her. Andy Samberg, who has been doing the ‘almost-lovable idiot’ shtick for a while, manages to fill Jesse with a practiced confidence and ambivalence. The supporting cast aren’t given a ton of knockout lines, but they all do their job.
The only other surprise in CJF is its direction. In a lot of romcoms the director is there just to tell the story as simply as possible. Lee Toland Krieger, who directed this, worked really well with the cinematographer David Lanzenberg to create something that not only tells the story pretty well, but also looks damn good. I thought the camerawork gave this movie a massive edge over some of its competitors in the same genre.
Celeste and Jesse Forever is easy to talk about in terms of romcoms, mostly because it tries to cleverly play with tropes and cliches. It succeeds some of the time, and it’s definitely above average for the genre, but it’s also a surprisingly heartfelt movie that tries to avoid narrative shortcuts. This isn’t just a good romcom but a fairly good movie with a decent story and well-developed characters. Still, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t expect to love it a little more.
Next week I’ll look at a movie that was expected to be nominated for Oscars but wasn’t, but I already wrote the review, so get ready for a look at the new Hitchcock. Leave me some fan/hate/questionmail below, please. I’ll fake Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s signature on a photo of him or something for you.