‘Celeste and Jesse Forever’ compromises female perspective for usual tropes

August 22, 2012

Last year, Bridesmaids received much hype for featuring women doing funny things in a script written by a woman. Though directed by a man (Paul Feig), the media hyped it as a “look-women-are-funny-too” because Kristen Wiig co-wrote the script (with Annie Mumolo) and performed in the lead role. There was even a serious push for a best picture Oscar®, despite it being base, fluffy sit-com material that goes down as quick and forgettably as fast food. An Oscar® for that? Still, at least the film maintained a focus on female characters that it never compromised.

Celeste and Jesse Forever finally arrives in wide release on a similar wave of hype following its Sundance Film Festival debut earlier this year. Rashida Jones, who is probably best known as a cast member on the NBC sitcom “Parks and Recreation,” co-wrote the screenplay with Will McCormack and plays the titular Celeste, with Andy Samberg taking on her other half. Though— like Bridesmaids— directed by a man (Lee Toland Krieger), Celeste and Jesse Forever seems to again been heralded as another entry of this “movement” of woman filmmaker/starring pieces in Hollywood. And maybe it could have lived up to such ballyhoo had it not spent so much time compromising the female perspective to tie up every loose end in the plot and concern itself halfheartedly with the man’s view in the couple. The film becomes one squandered opportunity, as indeed Celeste is an interesting female character … when she’s not pausing for someone else to steal the spotlight. She becomes lost in the haze of too many zany characters and sub-plots. What could have been a film of touching quality becomes a din of noise reaching too far for inclusiveness and appeal.

About 70 percent of the film seems devoted to Celeste and 20 percent figures on Jesse, while 10 percent focuses on other characters who are never fleshed out enough to even care about. These people include Celeste and Jesse’s engaged friends, Beth and Tucker (Ari Graynor and Eric Christian Olsen), Celeste’s wannabe queer media company boss (Elijah Wood), a pop star (Emma Roberts) whose image Celeste is supposed to boost in her role as a “trend forecaster” and a possible suitor for Celeste (Chris Messina). There’s also a few seconds of time devoted to the couple’s mutual dope-dealing friend (McCormack) … because pot dealers are so darn cute and funny in movies nowadays.

This “hip” couple is established at the film’s beginning driving in their hybrid vehicle, singing with gusto to Lily Allen. He’s a slacker surfer and graphic designer while she’s a pop culture specialist with such disdain for her specialty she authored a book called “Shitegeist.” Though they share jokes, like putting on phony German accents as they peruse a restaurant menu aloud together and simulating handjobs to lip balm as they mutually squeeze the tube, it turns out they have decided to divorce after five years of marriage. Instead of a fight that shows the couple’s dysfunction, these instances of cute, comfortable interactions serve to inform their reasons for divorce. As husband and wife they have only become best friends, not a romantic couple or a team with ambitions for children and careers.

Beth and Tucker sit across from Celeste and Jesse at a restaurant, as Celeste and Jesse put on their German accents. Beth and Tucker make faces of disgust, calling the soon-to-be divorcees creepy. Meanwhile, Celeste and Jesse put on their own faces of disgust as Beth and Tucker smooch at the table. Granted, the fiances’ behavior is portrayed as cutesy and over-the-top, but what’s really happening is a revelatory moment that shows Celeste and Jesse acting like elementary school kids too immature to have married in the first place. At the end of the night, Celeste and Jesse get drunk on wine when Jesse comes out of the studio in back of the house they once shared to help Celeste build an Ikea shelf. Neither can figure out the instructions (wink, wink. It’s Ikea!), so Jesse saws and hammers together a robot sculpture, and they have sex. That’s when Celeste realizes she must finally kick Jesse off the property and force him to find a job.

There exists a fine line in comedies of this sort. Where does the script serve to illuminate a character or give characters something witty to do in service of the script’s witty ideas? The actors seem to serve a script eager to get to the next witty idea of character development, that does nothing to reveal much growth or decline in the characters. They just seem to tread water. Characters in these comedies always seem funnier when they smoke pot, so both Celeste and Jesse separately get a turn at spend time with their dope fiend friend.

Then there are “original” ideas like the simulation of a hand job to the lip balm the two share more than once in the film, like some secret handshake. It becomes distracting in hollow humor from the true problems of these characters: they’re adult children. Instead of exploring why these two do not truly connect as a married couple, the film presents humorous situations that gloss over the characters problems and, in effect, problems in the script.

I had hoped for a more light-hearted take on the dissolution of a marriage than Sarah Polley’s little-seen masterpiece Take This Waltz (starring a couple of capable comedians in dramatic roles: Seth Rogen and Sarah Silverman). Instead, all I saw in Celeste and Jesse Forever was an amalgam of precious scenarios too concerned with finding superficial conclusions for every other character that appears in the movie (the tidiest and, in effect, most ludicrous of which involves a male model Celeste dates for a moment and Celeste’s way too quick taming of Roberts’ Ke$ha-like pop star, another wasted female character turned into a punchline). Though presented as an indie film, as its distributed by Sony Pictures Classics, the film compromises to the Classical Hollywood form almost slavishly.

When there are moments of dramatic, emotional diversion, out comes the unsteady camera and plaintive, quite few seconds of the character. The director never lingers enough to allow these respites from the din of story-telling and humor to sink in to any significance. These moments just seem out of place. The film seems scatter-shot and its over-reaching allows it to ring hollow. Had the film simply focused on Celeste and allowed these other characters to wander through, damn their own fates, this could have been a much more interesting and engaging film. Jones’ character only becomes uninteresting when she has to take a backseat to the other actors’ story lines. That happens way too often to allow her to matter, when it is she, in the end, who must do some growing up. But who wants to see an immature woman grow? Is that too risky a film for Hollywood? Shame on this cop-out that ultimately sells short what could have been an interesting female-led film.

Hans Morgenstern

Trailer:

Sony Pictures Classics will be releasing Celeste and Jesse Forever in South Florida this Friday, Aug. 24, at the following theaters:

Gateway 4 – Fort Lauderdale, FL
Cinemark Palace 20 – Boca Raton, FL
Cinemark Paradise 24 – Davie, FL
Shadowood 16 – Boca Raton, FL
Delray Beach 18 – Delray Beach, FL
Regal South Beach – Miami Beach, FL
Cinemark Boynton Beach – Boynton Beach, FL

If you live outside of South Florida, it could very well be playing in your area now, but there are also other playdates planned throughout the month. A full schedule of US dates can be found on the film’s official website, here.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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