Sundance: Rashida Jones does romantic dramedy in 'Celeste and Jesse Forever'
It may be easiest to describe “Celeste and Jesse Forever” in terms of what it might be but is not. Is it a broad, female-centric comedy à la “Bridesmaids”? Kind of, not quite. How about a tender breakup tale/love letter to Los Angeles' Los Feliz and Silver Lake neighborhoods that recalls “(500) Days of Summer”? Sort of, but not really.
Audiences will get their first idea of what “Celeste and Jesse Forever” really is when the film premieres Friday night at the Sundance Film Festival, where it has been marked by many as one of the hotter titles available for acquisition going into the fest.
Starring, co-written and executive produced by Rashida Jones from NBC's “Parks and Recreation,” the film follows a creative-class Angeleno couple on the cusp of divorce. Celeste (Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg) were high school sweethearts, and as much as they have grown up together, they now find they are growing apart but struggling to fully break from each other. (That Jesse is living in their back house probably doesn’t help.)
Directed by Lee Toland Krieger, whose caustic “The Vicious Kind” premiered at Sundance in 2009, “Celeste and Jesse” is neither a full-on comedy nor a total downer drama. Rather, the film looks to craft a delicate and difficult blend of genres, mixing laughs with a genuine emotional currency underlined by a vibrant sense of immediacy.
“We’re obsessed with ‘Broadcast News,’ ‘When Harry Met Sally,’ the things that did the impossible of striking a balance between humor and emotion,” said Jones while sitting with co-writer and fellow executive producer Will McCormack recently during a break from making finishing touches on the film.
“We wanted to allow the comedy to come out of a real place,” said McCormack, who also plays an unexpectedly wise pot dealer in the film. “All of the things we do in a breakup and how painful heartbreak is and how funny it can be in retrospect. I always think life is funny enough.”
The pair first met in the late ’90s after Jones made a film with McCormack’s sister, actress Mary McCormack; they dated for three weeks and have been friends ever since. “Celeste and Jesse” is the first finished screenplay by either; they wrote the film side by side on Jones’ couch, handing a laptop back and forth.
Since they finished the script in early 2009, “Celeste and Jesse Forever” fell into a cycle of false starts, including with Fox Atomic and Overture Films before each company folded. By last spring, they decided to just get the film done themselves.
For Jones, the lead role takes her far afield from the sensible girlfriend-wife-friend parts she’s so often played. As Celeste struggles to move forward after the end of her marriage, she comes to realize she is more to blame for its dissolution than she cares to admit.
Jones’ immersion into the part made a fan of her director.
“From the get-go it was clear Rashida had an emotional tie to this that no other actress could come in and manufacture,” Krieger said. “This is without question as vulnerable a role as she could have taken on.”
If part of the film’s through-line is watching Celeste open up to the possibility of change, there is perhaps also a way to look at the movie as Jones publicly outing herself as something of a control freak.
“Celeste is definitely not a totally fictional character. I definitely have some control issues,” she allowed. Turning to McCormack, she asked, “But they’re not as bad as Celeste, right?”
As he searched for the kindest, most diplomatic response, Jones added, “Answer faster.”
-- Mark Olsen
Photo: Andy Samberg and Rashida Jones in "Celeste and Jesse Forever." Credit: Envision Media Arts