Celeste (Rashida Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg) met in high school, married young and are growing apart. Now thirty, Celeste is the driven owner of her own media consulting firm, Jesse is once again unemployed and in no particular rush to do anything with his life. Celeste is convinced that divorcing Jesse is the right thing to do, and if they do it now, they can remain supportive friends. Jesse passively accepts this transition into friendship, even though he is still in love with her. As the reality of their separation sets in, Celeste slowly and painfully realizes she has been cavalier about their relationship, and her decision, which once seemed mature and progressive, now seems impulsive and selfish.

Couple's collapse falls short at finish line.

SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL: The difficult thirtysomething woman adrift on career and relationship tides forms a mini-theme at this year’s Sundance. If Young Adult were somehow allowed into the game, we could call it a bona fide trend at three. I’m thinking of Hello I Must Be Going, about a recent divorcee (Melanie Lynskey) forced to move back in with her parents, and Celeste and Jesse Forever, about a successful writer (Rashida Jones) separated from her husband (Adam Samberg) but unwilling to actually cut him loose. Both were written or co-written by women (Sarah Koskoff and Jones, respectively), and both seem determined to show us young-ish women hitting a particular kind of low.

So when I say 'difficult" what I mean, in the case of Jones’s Celeste certainly, is asshole. Celeste is an asshole. She seems cool at first, when we see her goofing around with Jesse (Samberg), in terminally cute kind of way. Celeste and Jesse share private jokes and a private language—in short it would seem they’re in love. The fact that they live separately (sort of—Jesse lives in Celeste’s garage) and are heading for divorce doesn’t seem to have affected their relationship all that much. Why has this marriage failed when it looks so much like a success?

For a while it seems Celeste and Jesse may have hit on a subject that’s both timeless and super current. The post-divorce generation is sorting out a definition of marriage for themselves, which had made for some pretty complex situations and a glut of blooper marriages that end just as life is supposed to be beginning. Celeste’s best friend (Ari Graynor) is about to marry herself, and can’t understand why the couple won’t push through: 'Best friends—that’s the hard part," she says. 'Nothing else matters." Initially we are made to understand that it’s Jesse’s extended adolescence that turned Celeste off—he’s unemployed and unmotivated, not someone she can picture as the father of her kids. But Celeste and Jesse slowly veers away from competing definitions of a successful marriage and into character study territory, reframing itself as a portrait of Celeste and all her gnarly issues.

It’s definitely a kick watching Jones—a captivating actress most often seen coasting on her innate warmth—behave so badly, and in a different film her portrayal of a closed-off woman would resonate much more fully than it does here. Celeste is a great big no—it’s every other word out of her mouth—a woman who rules things out reflexively, so as not to divert from the plan. She’s a trend forecaster ('Shitegeist" is the name of her book, one of the few of the film’s dorky jokes that actually works) and has a habit of envisioning her own future in vague but mercenary terms. She sizes up a vapid pop star client (Emma Roberts) and a white-collar weekend yogi (Chris Messina) in the same way, never imagining how she might be brutally summed up at a glance herself.

After we learn that Jesse’s one night stand has resulted in a pregnancy and perhaps even a lasting relationship we don’t see much of Samberg, who feels a little more awkward in the role than the role’s basic awkwardness (or his lack of chemistry with Jones) can bear. As Celeste begins to confront her own regrets and entitlements, the direction (by Lee Toland Krieger) stays tight but the script and the editing create too many potholes for the film to hold together. Too much of what’s unique and fresh about the subject matter feels stifled by Krieger’s genre-conscious attempt to blend the cynical meta-speak we now associate with mouthy ensemble comedies and the fearless sincerity of some of Jones and Samberg’s later scenes. I wound up wishing the story had guided this film and its very welcome risks more faithfully; my sense is with talent like this the rest would have fallen into a better place.


1 hour 32 min
In Cinemas 29 November 2012,