The question of whether men and women can ever really be friends lies at the heart of so many romantic comedies and dramas that Celeste and Jesse Forever deserves a healthy dose of praise just for finding a new angle on this enduring debate.
The movie subverts our expectations very quickly. After establishing the seemingly perfect relationship of Celeste (Rashida Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg) during the opening-credits montage, and then giving us a scene of their playful affection, we see the couple being ridiculously cute together while out to dinner with their friends Beth (Ari Graynor) and Tucker (Eric Christian Olsen). At one point, Beth, overwhelmed by the couple's silly baby talk, explodes and says it's unnatural for them to be like this when they've been separated for six months and are getting divorced.
It turns out that Celeste, a type-A professional who makes a living in marketing because she has a gift for trend spotting, and Jesse, a struggling artist who seems to lack motivation and certainly a steady paycheck, have been friends since tenth grade and can't quite let go of each other, even though their marriage was a failure.
Co-written by Jones and actor Will McCormack, the movie offers few surprises in terms of plotting -- other people enter Celeste and Jesse's lives, the duo fight, then reconcile, then fight again -- but the actors are given every opportunity to play a variety of emotions. Jones, an inherently likable screen presence whose beauty never overwhelms her approachability, becomes the center of the movie as Celeste -- with her insatiable desire to be right all the time -- carries most of the dramatic weight. Jones allows the character to be both affecting and annoying as Celeste begins losing control, the exact thing she fears most, at work and in her personal life. Samberg turns out to be a solid onscreen partner for her; he tones down his goofy persona without sacrificing laughs. He's got a knack for portraying boyish enthusiasm and immaturity that doesn't feel infantile or hostile. In one of their many reconciliation scenes, he shows up at her house and just wants her to hold him. It's a tender scene in which both leads engagingly reveal their characters' vulnerabilities.
The supporting cast more than hold their own: Chris Messina stands out as a yoga enthusiast and possible love interest for Celeste, while Emma Roberts gets laughs as a Britney Spears-esque pop star with a knack for calling Celeste out on her personal failings.
Director Lee Toland Krieger never pushes the material; he's interested in just watching the characters, and that's where he wants our focus as well. He relies on naturalism from his actors, and his unobtrusive camera work accentuates their feelings instead of dictating ours.
The meaning of the title Celeste and Jesse Forever shifts as the film goes along. Sometimes it carries a hint of bemused resignation, sometimes it's bitingly ironic, and sometimes it's a plain statement of fact. By the time the closing credits roll, you'll realize it's mostly the latter and you'll understand what that fact means for the two main characters.