' ' Cinema Romantico: Celeste & Jesse Forever

Monday, March 18, 2013

Celeste & Jesse Forever

On NBC’s brilliant sitcom “Parks and Recreation”, Rashida Jones plays the charming if emotionally erratic Ann Perkins. There is this trite sentiment that someone as naturally beautiful as Jones could not have the serious dating struggle of the character she plays but that misses the point of, well, the character she is playing. As Andy Greenwald so astutely put it for Grantland: “Ann is the smartest one in the room and the least together outside of it.” Jones is a gifted, if gratefully understated, comedienne. Overwhelmed not so much by shyness as a general confusion with life itself, she is always saying something mystifying and then facially and verbally wondering why she just said it. She struggles on the dating scene because she's an understated basket case.

As great as she is on “Parks and Recreation”, however, she is fated to play second banana to Amy Poehler’s over-eager, over-achieving Leslie Knope and on the silver screen she has often been fated to play The Significant Other and you always wonder of her yearning to step up into the spotlight. And so with “Celeste and Jesse Forever” she takes matter into her own hands by not only starring but co-authoring the screenplay with co-star Will McCormack (Lee Toland Krieger directs).

Jones is Celeste. Andy Samberg is Jesse. They are married but in the process of acquiring a divorce. Well, sort of. We don’t know that they are getting a divorce until we see them at dinner with their friends who freak out that they are acting like a couple when, you know, they are getting divorced. They finally make a decision to see other people but even that does not work as much to finally push them apart as does the sudden revelation that Jesse is having a baby with Veronica who he hooked up with at some point recently that is never overtly specified. If it seems convenient, like the screenplay making the decision for them, it is not, precisely because Jones and McCormack wish to convey that these two could probably turn a trial separation into 4-Ever.

Jesse seems less than excited regarding about this development, yet committed to his new girl and forthcoming child, but Celeste is left alone and, as such, realizes she can't stand herself. Maybe this all sounds dark and moody. It is not. It is, above all, a comedy, but in that sort of Woody Allen way where he would line up various things that he did not like solely so he could make fun of them. Celeste gets to rag on line-cutters, make light of vaucous pop stars (Emma Roberts, deft) and even take a side trip to ludicrous vegan coffee shop that is ripped straight from “Annie Hall” when Alvy goes to the health food restaurant on Sunset Blvd. (Baltic Kelp subs in for “the plate of mashed yeast.”) Jesse is an artist whom he never necessarily see creating and Celeste, God help us all, is a “trend forecaster.” I honestly thought this occupation was made up, like the character of Owen Wilson’s novel in “Midnight Paris” working at a nostalgia shop, until afterwards I realized it was real and, thus, merely re-proving I may not be cut out for this world.

No doubt “Celeste and Jesse Forever” to swamp the ship by overloading on quirkiness. That it remains afloat is due in no small part to Rashida Jones, not just because of how she plays the part but because of the part she’s playing. The noted screenwriter and author William Goldman, typically unafraid to tell it like it is, has noted before how notable male movie stars often dislike playing “chicken.” Rashida Jones is not afraid to play “chicken.” Her Celeste is the least together person out of the room, indeed, but she’s not necessarily the smartest one in the room either – she only thinks she is (as a character tells her). And Jones plays that unlikable notion for all its worth, lording a certain sense of superiority over those around her all while becoming unglued, drinking too much and serial dating in a desperate attempt to thwart aloneness. Oh sure, she Meets Cute with Chris Messina but whereas in most rom coms his character would factor in heavily, giving her the strength to re-chart her life course simply by being there on bended knee, Jones and McCormack refuse to let their combustible heroine off so easy.

Ultimately her humanity shines through. Consider The Wedding Toast sequence which transcends its archetypal roots by allowing her to be both selfish and gracious. It's representative of the high-wire Jones walks the whole movie. She's not the world's best high-wire walker, not even close, she wavers, she makes panicked faces, she threatens to topple a dozen times, if not more, and by the end she's sopped in flop sweat. But she makes it.

The end’s a little cutesy (a callback to the line-cutting?) but, ah hell, Celeste went through enough. I think she deserved it.

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