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Sundance Review: 'Celeste And Jesse Forever' A Charming Tale Of Romance & Heartbreak In The Vein Of 'When Harry Met Sally'

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by William Goss
January 25, 2012 11:24 AM
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If "(500) Days of Summer" is bound to be considered this generation’s "Annie Hall" (not its equal, mind you, but its closest equivalent), then it’s fair to claim that "Celeste And Jesse Forever" follows in the footsteps of "When Harry Met Sally," picking up where that film ended and proceeding to chronicle similar ups-and-downs in a close friendship verging on – or, rather, retreating from – full-blown romance.

Celeste (Rashida Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg) remain the best of friends, even in the midst of a divorce; to be specific, they spend nearly every day hanging out together and he still lives in her guest house. Their engaged pals (Ari Graynor and Eric Christian Olsen) are more bothered by their cavalier behavior in the face of their separation than Celeste and Jesse are. But all it takes is one night of shared IKEA frustration and uncorked wine for the duo to realize that ending their relationship was indeed the right move, and so they part ways to bittersweet results.

You can basically see where this is going. Jones and Samberg are Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal, respectively, while Graynor and Olsen amusingly fill in as surrogates for Carrie Fisher and Bruno Kirby’s reluctantly supportive buds, and the narrative drifts along between reunions and parties and new lovers and old feelings with knowing familiarity. (At one point, Celeste’s gay colleague and confidante, played by Elijah Wood, tries to play things sassier in order to better serve his role in her life; they quickly agree that this is unnecessary and promptly take it down a notch.)

Celeste’s line of work, as a sort of trend-predictor, has made her fearful of the commercialized and conventional, so it’s hardly a stretch that a divorce without separation seems ideal to her (meanwhile, she compulsively pushes her new novel, “Shitegeist,” in every bookstore she enters). Jesse likes the idea because he’s essentially a slacker, and seriously, what sounds better to him than living and working with your best friend while being free to also see other people? One night of drunken backsliding brings the weight of the world down on their idyllic proposal, though, while a different night between Jesse and another woman prompts Celeste to rebound while he has to rise to the occasion of sudden fatherhood.

Jones and Samberg in "Celeste and Jesse Forever."

As directed by Lee Toland Krieger ("The Vicious Kind") and written by Jones and co-star Will McCormack, 'Forever' doesn’t deviate terribly from the can-we-be-friends-after-sex playbook, but it rarely opts for hysterics or contrivance to push our leads along, so long as you can swallow the amicability with which they initially divorce. Better yet, the formula finds itself served surprisingly well by both its cast and script, even if a balance isn’t easily struck between the two leads.

Whether a matter of Jones serving as co-writer or a decision made in the editing room, the 89-minute end result distinctly emphasizes Celeste’s post-split growth and doubts more than Jesse’s, but Jones as actress is up to the task. She’s the conventional control freak with a career in the realm of marketing who needs to loosen up, but in her first leading role, she goes for something more fragile and bittersweet than whatever a Katherine Heigl type might have brought to the table. The chemistry between her and Samberg is potent – they get along so well that they can’t imagine being with anyone else, but they’re also inhibitors for one another’s maturation – and the 'SNL' vet handles his grace notes deftly. However, it’s her performance that proves more winning through break-ups and meltdowns, from bong hits to bear hugs. Frumpy and neurotic suit her persona, as already proven through her TV work, but Jones openly invites bigger and better things with her well-tuned turn here.

That’s to say nothing of the supporting ensemble. Graynor, Olsen, Wood, McCormack as a drug dealer, Emma Roberts as a pop starlet and Chris Messina as a potential flame all inhabit the same quippy-but-not-glib universe as our leads, and with equal ease, although Roberts’ diva subplot ranks among the most readily expendable. David Lanzenberg’s cinematography captures a romantic sense of Los Angeles even when our characters are out of love, and the music by Zach Cowie and Sunny Levine strikes a fitting, melancholy tone. Most importantly, Krieger keeps things on an even keel between hilarity (one sight gag cites the law firm of “Stein, Steinberg, Weinberg and Jimenez”) and heartache, if not necessarily even between his problems and hers.

"Celeste and Jesse Forever" ends on a reasonably realistic note, neither betraying the ironic implications of its title nor the sensitivity of its characters. Hell, even their immature mini-masturbation antics have become endearing by that point. (Just trust us on that one.) Once we’ve been around Celeste and Jesse long enough, we don’t want to split with them either, but at least they have a good run for our sake. [B]

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