Lessons in the art of decoupling
✩ ELESTE and Jesse Forever is what is now known as an anti-romantic comedy. The label doesn’t signify an absence of romance. It means the story has dark patches, often unexpected; that sorrow and disappointment lurk around every corner; that happy endings can’t be guaranteed. Rather like real life, you might say.
In the anti-romantic comedy, the conventions of the standard Hollywood rom-com are subverted. A favourite theme is the way sudden obstacles can block the path to true love. Couples who seem made for each other never quite hit it off. Something always seems to go wrong.
A generation ago this was a familiar problem for Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn; then, we called it screwball comedy.
Directed by Lee Toland Krieger, Celeste and Jesse Forever poses the question: can a divorcing couple still be best friends? Can they continue to see each other, live in adjoining rooms, go out together and continue to behave like a normal married couple (except in one important respect)?
Recent anti-romantic comedies have explored similar dilemmas. Can a loving couple survive the constant postponement of marriage without straying from the paths of righteousness? ( The Five-Year Engagement.) Can best friends enjoy regular sex without forming binding or loving commitments? ( Friends with Benefits.) Can an engaged man have sex with his fiancee’s sister without spoiling things? ( My Sister’s Sister.) Can teenage girls in American high schools form a loving relationship with a vampire? ( Twilight and various sequels.) On second thoughts, forget that last one.
In my limited experience, divorcing couples prefer to see as little of each other as possible. But let’s assume that Celeste (Rashida Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg) want to stay best friends. Not only that, they are determined to flaunt the fact, to carry on as if nothing has happened, in a way that gives offence to their friends. Celeste’s friend Beth (Ari Graynor) finds their behaviour positively weird. So what conclusions can be drawn from it? That Celeste and Jesse are still in love deep down? That each is still on the lookout for someone else and ready to date another person even if the other resents it and pretends not to care? That the inevitable will sometimes happen — that after a night out or a boozy dinner or a bungled attempt on Jesse’s part to assemble an Ikea cupboard the two will finish up in bed together, tenderly revisiting old memories? I leave you to guess.
But I shouldn’t suggest that Celeste and Jesse Forever has a predictable story-line. It’s full of surprises and the screenplay, written by Jones and Will McCormack, crackles with smart lines, usually delivered at breakneck speed. But beneath the fun and games are constant hints of sadness. This, after all, is a film about the subtle ways love begins to sicken and decay, even when both partners still care for each other. Yet so much of it is funny — the awkward encounters, the embarrassing coverups, the way the characters reassure them- selves in the face of jealousy or anger or regret.
‘‘ That’s great,’’ says Celeste, when Jesse announces he’s dating someone, ‘‘ Good move, I’m proud of you.’’ Or: ‘‘ I’m totally fine.’’
At least Celeste has a full-time workload to distract her. Her PR firm specialises in trend forecasting and, when things are falling apart with Jesse, she lands a lucrative contract promoting the career of a teenage pop idol, Riley (Emma Roberts). The seemingly vacuous and insufferable Riley turns out to have her own romantic problems, and the scenes in which she seeks comfort from Celeste are especially touching. Jesse’s career as an artist, generally in the doldrums, also takes a turn for better. His artwork for a Riley poster scores a hit until someone discovers what look like stylised genitalia in the design and the media makes a story of it.
Meanwhile, new partners come and go. For Celeste, there’s hot young model Rupert (Rafi Gavron) — no thanks — and Max (Rich Sommer), who turns her down. She meets Paul (Chris Messina) at yoga class and things looks promising, but Celeste is the one to break it off. Jesse finds instant rapport with Veronica