The title characters of “Celeste and Jesse Forever” make an adorable couple. Played by Rashida Jones from “Parks and Recreation” and Andy Samberg from “Saturday Night Live,” they’ve clearly known each other for years, and the film’s first scenes reveal a cozy shorthand between them. They applaud each other’s triumphs and share bawdy little inside jokes. At dinner with friends, they banter back and forth until newly engaged Beth (Ari Graynor) snaps and asks how Celeste and Jesse can act so lovey-dovey when they’re in the middle of a divorce.
“Celeste and Jesse Forever” is an ironic title for a movie about best friends who married young, realized they weren’t ideal life partners and try to end their marriage with no hard feelings. Directed by Lee Toland Krieger and co-written by Jones, the warm, low-budget comedy explores modern relationships without tripping over the clichés of such comparable indie rom-coms as “Lola Versus” or “Friends With Kids.”
Celeste co-owns a small media company and has published a book about modern trends, called “Shitegeist.” Jesse has artistic talent but seems more interested in surfing and slacking than being a grown-up. When the film begins, they’ve been separated for six months, with Jesse “temporarily” living in Celeste’s guest house. The arrangement seems to work for them: she’s not ready to move on romantically, and he’s not ready to move on to adult responsibilities.
They begin to tentatively see other people, but it seems that they could get back together, especially when they have an unexpected hook-up after trying to build a piece of IKEA furniture on a boozy night. Shortly thereafter, though, Jesse discovers that a one-night stand from a few months earlier turns out to be pregnant. Jesse decides to make the pregnancy and relationship with Veronica work, stirring up complicated feelings on Celeste’s part. In a subtle detail, the two women are similar physical types, suggesting that the same turn of events could have happened with Celeste.
Much of the movie tracks Celeste’s difficulties in accepting the new situation, especially when Jesse starts demonstrating a maturity that he never showed during their marriage. Grappling with jealousy, heartbreak and a desire to feel genuinely happy for him, Celeste throws herself into exercise, yoga and dating, which leads to “Annie Hall”-style vignettes of dates turned disastrous. She also grapples with a work complication when her company reluctantly takes on a lucrative but shallow client in sexed-up young pop singer Riley Banks (Emma Roberts).
No matter that Jones co-wrote the screenplay; she proves a great casting choice for Celeste. A more cookie-cutter film with, say, Katherine Heigl would have taken Celeste’s careerism as a pretext to play a stereotype of an uptight, emotionally constipated businesswoman. But rather than become a cartoon of brittle femininity, Jones conveys that Celeste leaves her ambition at the office and can relax and have fun in her off hours. She shows how her character admits her flaws and unresolved feelings without making exaggerated shifts in acting style or wardrobe.
Jones offers the flip side of her appealing, girl-next-door accessibility when an increasingly despondent Celeste goes through Jesse’s garbage and goes on benders of booze, junk food and giant bong hits. She seems enough like “one of the guys” to dabble in the kind of bad behavior normally found in the man-child protagonists of a Judd Apatow comedy.
Jesse spends much of the film on Celeste’s periphery, but Samberg gets a few times to play against his goofball instincts. “Celeste and Jesse Forever” has no shortage of little annoyances, though. Jones’ co-writer, Will McCormack, plays hard-partying Skillz and delivers the kind of overacting you sometimes find when a performer has written his own role. Celeste and her gay business partner (Elijah Wood) talk about “gay best friend” stereotypes, as if to inoculate the film against embracing such stereotypes. Beth fights with Celeste so much that you question whether they’d be friends in real life. And Celeste is one of countless movie writer characters whom we never see actually write.
Overall, Krieger gives “Celeste and Jesse Forever” an easy, unforced vibe that makes the characters seem like real people without undermining the comedy. At times, the natural light and unusual angles make the movie seem like a contemplative, would-be-edgy TV commercial, but the main product it sells could be Rashida Jones’ face in close-up. Consider me sold.