Breaking up is hard to do, and so is pulling off a high-concept romantic comedy that’s also meant to be a study of type-A personality issues. Glibly amusing and fitfully perceptive as it follows a wife and husband determined to stay best friends following their weirdly amicable split, “Celeste & Jesse Forever” earns points for bucking formula, but its fusion of snark and sincerity has a calculated slickness that rings increasingly hollow. Nevertheless, this pop-savvy pic, the biggest cinematic showcase yet for actress and debuting scribe Rashida Jones, boasts enough laughs to win over a segment of the general public.
Whether performing lewd sight gags or reading restaurant menus with exaggerated accents, Celeste (Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg) make such an insufferably cutesy couple that it takes several minutes for the audience to realize they’ve technically been separated for months. A professional trendspotter for a high-end Los Angeles marketing firm and a recently published author, Celeste is fed up enough with aspiring artist Jesse’s perpetual unemployment to end their six-year marriage, though both parties secretly hope and expect they’ll wind up back together soon enough.
That all changes when Jesse learns he’s about to become a dad, as a result of a one-night stand some months earlier with beautiful stranger Veronica (Rebecca Dayan). Though Celeste is outwardly supportive of his decision to settle down with the mother of his child, the news sends her into an emotional tailspin that she seeks to recover from by dating other men, such as guitar-strumming model Rupert (Rafi Gavron) and, more promisingly, her hunky yoga classmate Paul (Chris Messina). Yet no rebound relationship can keep this high-strung overachiever from continually alienating those closest to her as she wrestles with her conflicted feelings about herself and her soon-to-be-ex-husband.
Jones and Will McCormack’s witty script is undeniably distinctive in the way it sets up an unusual divorce-centric premise, then uses a soapy complication as a springboard into more character-driven territory. At the same time, there’s an overly self-satisfied quality to the pic’s attempts to mock romantic-comedy conventions, exemplified perhaps by Elijah Wood’s turn as Celeste’s self-aware, advice-spouting gay friend. Even the lead casting of hip TV funnyfolk Jones (“Parks and Recreation”) and Samberg (“Saturday Night Live”), however enjoyably offbeat, feels like a deliberately ironic gesture that somewhat hinders audience investment in the couple’s journey.
That title, too, turns out to be misleading: For better and for worse, this is Celeste’s movie, and Jones’ typically sharp performance delights in revealing the character’s worst traits, specifically her need to be right all the time and what one character rightly calls out as her “contempt prior to investigation.” Yet by focusing so heavily on the comedy of female self-improvement, arguably letting Jesse off the hook, the pic inadvertently suggests that a lazy, unmotivated man is preferable to a smart, opinionated woman. That Celeste just needs to lighten up is repeatedly pounded home in the string of redemptive, reconciliatory encounters that make up the pic’s final passages.
Briskly directed by Lee Toland Krieger (making a confident follow-up to 2009’s “The Vicious Kind”), “Celeste & Jesse Forever” keeps up a steady stream of sharp jokes and observations, most of them directed at the chic L.A./Hollywood bubble the characters inhabit. Particularly noteworthy in the strong supporting cast are McCormack as Jesse’s aggressively solicitous friend and Emma Roberts as Celeste’s odious rock-star client.
Pic benefits from evocative lensing in and around the city, stretching from Silverlake neighborhoods to such classic downtown locales as the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Musical choices are ingratiating and effective, particularly in a lovely, romantic sequence of tightly edited still images that opens the picture.