Sunday, August 5, 2012

"Celeste and Jesse Forever"

2.5 / 5 

Do we grow up to be who we want to be, or do we grow up and become bigger versions of what we were before?  And if, in growing up, we learn more things about ourselves and others, how do we square those with what we already know?  In short: What do we do when our lives move on, but we don't?

Celeste and Jesse Forever is an always-charming, always happy-tinged look at two people who woke up one morning, after being married for six years, and came to the mutual conclusion that the marriage itself was the problem.  It had changed them; living apart, having separate lives into which the other could be invited -- that had worked so well.

Celeste (Rashida Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg) were the quintessential BFFs, so romance seemed the next logical step.  But romance was never there, and now they have to move on with their lives, a next step complicated by Jesse still being Celeste's roommate, by the fact that they spent all their waking moments with each other.  It was the sex part, we're led to imagine, that just didn't work.  Oh, and the fact that Jesse is a stoner surfer dude who would rather scope the waves down in Malibu than finish a project whose deadline has long passed.

Celeste has a good job, Jesse has none, but that's been OK -- it's the other looks they get, the judgments of others, that lead them to believe divorce is the best option.  Being friends, hanging around with each other, doing things together all the time, that's just too ... messy.  And it's pretty darned cute, which is why Celeste and Jesse Forever often feels a little like a John Hughes film for 21st-century adults.

That's because these characters by and large act like teens.  They can't get their home life together, they can't do grown-up things like finding time for sex (not just mocking it with a ChapStick tube), for exploring each others' wants and needs, for building off the memories they have.  They want the fun of a relationship, not the work that goes with it, and they realize that far too late.  But unlike Annie Hall or the luminous Before Sunset, Celeste and Jesse Forever can't find its own moment of absolute clarity, of recognizing the inanity of the situation: They're keeping themselves away from the one person with whom they work best.

 Like a 1980s Hughes movie, Celeste and Jesse Forever has dialogue that sparkles, lines that are deserving of the big, big laughs they get, and beautiful lead actors who are smart and compassionate.  But, like the central relationship itself, it all never really comes together.   Mostly, it works like this: Celeste says something inappropriate.  Then regrets it.  Then feels sheepish.  Then wants to talk about what she could have done better.

Trouble is, we need our heroine to know what she wants and go after it.  When she doesn't, when she isn't ready ... it leads to a film that is dramatically inert.  Fortunately for Celeste and Jesse forever, what the movie does have is wildly appealing stars, some sharp and memorable dialogue, and an opportunity to make us question what we'd do in the same situation.

It's got a lot going for it, but it lacks focus and a dramatic fire in its belly to create something that feels urgent and raw.  Had it stuck with it just a little while longer, it could have taken us even deeper, it could have become the 21st century "Annie Hall."  Instead, it's a perfect date movie, which is the problem, since it's about divorce.

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