Well, it sounds like such a good idea: Instead of waiting for a juicy script to arrive on the doorstep, why shouldn’t two actors sit down and write their own screenplay? Which is what Rashida Jones and Will McCormack, her co-star in “Celeste and Jesse Forever,” did.
The problem is they very much wrote an actors’ script filled with all sorts of cute business and schtick that divert attention away from what might have been an intriguing investigation into an early marriage that seemingly is falling apart. At times the movie almost feels like it’s being improvised. Probably not, but all too often everything stops for Jones and the other actors to perform bits that aren’t nearly as funny as everyone seems to think they are.
At least the writing team did hit on a solid premise. The title characters of Celeste and Jesse — Jones from “Parks and Recreation” plays Celeste while fast-rising “SNL” alum Andy Samberg (“That’s My Boy”) plays Jesse — went from childhood sweethearts into married life without a moment’s thought. When they hit 30, however, many thoughts come to them — or at least to Celeste.
She’s hugely ambitious with her own media consulting firm and TV appearances as a cultural trends expert. He’s … well, he’s unemployed again and none too eager to find work. As the movie begins, divorce proceedings are underway.
But what’s weird — at least to best friend Beth (Ari Graynor), who’s about to get married — is that nothing has changed with these two. They still hang together (Celeste allows Jesse to live in a studio behind the house), share the same old jokes and remain constant friends. This is not how estranged couples should act.
Of course, there is a story behind this act, which is the story of “Celeste and Jesse Forever.” Seems they rushed into this divorce business with the same thoughtless speed they rushed into the marriage business. Celeste begins to realize she has treated this too cavalierly while Jesse never fell out of love with his wife.
With a bright surrounding cast of characters including Bess and her betrothed, a sleazy drug dealer pal (McCormick takes this role), Celeste’s gay assistant — aren’t all assistants in these kind of movies gay? — and various men and women on the romantic make for these two, the table is set for a more serious kind of rom-com.
Unfortunately, the movie digresses from its storyline continually for all the cute actorish nonsense. The couple is so cloyingly cute with in-jokes, some audience members are bound to root for the break-up: They confer over restaurant menus in stridently fake accents, play sex games with tiny plastic squirt bottles in public and have all sorts of corny traditions such as Jesse tearing up over taped reruns of the Beijing Olympics.
The movie must maneuver through a minefield of these lame gags, which may have been fun to write but aren’t much fun to watch. If Celeste is supposed to be so much more mature than her husband, she certainly never shows it.
One late arriving subplot actually brings rewards. Celeste reluctantly takes on as a client a bad-girl singer (Emma Roberts), a sort of Britney Spears crossed with Lindsay Lohan. Their initial loathing of one another turns into something else, this despite a monumental screw-up by Celeste in which a logo for the singer accidentally contains an extremely suggestive sexual act.
Otherwise the surrounding characters are generic figures from sketch comedy, one-note personalities whose only purpose is to highlight the couple’s problems and make snarky comments about their increasingly convoluted paths to happiness.
In his second feature film, director Lee Toland Kreiger maintains a lively pace but indulges his actors too much. For somewhere in all this lurks a compelling story that is less a romantic comedy than a serious comedy about the meaning of love. It never emerges.
Venue: LAFF (Sony Pictures Classics)
Production Companies: Team Todd, Envision Media Arts Cast: Rashida Jones, Andy Samberg, Chris Messina, Ari Graynor, Emma Roberts, Elijah Wood, Eric Christian Olsen Director: Lee Toland Krieger Screenwriters/executive producers: Rashida Jones, Will McCormack Producers: Jennifer Todd, Suzanne Todd, Lee Nelson Director of photography: David Lanzenberg Production designer: Ian Phillips Music: Sunny Levine, Zach Cowie Costume designer: Julia Caston Editor: Yana Gorskaya No rating, 93 minutes