Rashida Jones’ Celeste, the protagonist of “Celeste and Jesse Forever,” publishes a non-fiction book called Shitegeist, which, as you may have inferred, is about how the zeitgeist has been turned to ‘shite’ by entitled rich kids and talentless pop-stars. This could have been the basis for a sharp, funny observation of the fact that the zeitgeist has actually been co-opted by hipsters like Celeste who portend to be cultural experts through doomsday characterizations of where American society is headed.
But Celeste’s book and her character–along with Andy Samberg’s Jesse–are portrayed with stone-cold seriousness, not satirization. Whereas the mumblecore movement’s understanding portrayals of emotionally stilted late-twentysomethings comedically own up to the immaturity of their characters, “Celeste and Jesse Forever” never allows the viewer to laugh at Celeste as she copes with looming adulthood. As such, the exercise is no more than a mopey and pathetic grab for non-existent viewer sympathy.
The viewer is practically supposed to sit in awe of the supposed wit of Celeste and Jesse–a couple who married young and, even after they agree to divorce, can’t find it in themselves to spend time apart–as they rattle off one carefully manufactured quip after another. Before director Lee Toland Krieger can firmly establish a tone, during the opening scenes, one makes the reasonable assumption that Krieger is staging a critique of the pair’s self-absorbed, immature quirks that don’t match their adult bodies. But once the movie gets going, it becomes clear that Krieger intends for Celeste and Jesse’s over-precious dialogue and actions to be reasons for the viewer to like them.
Allow me to enlighten you with examples of Celeste and Jesse’s “human” behaviors from the first 10 minutes of the film alone. They drive by Walt Disney Concert Hall, which Celeste refuses to even glance at so as to not seem touristy. They meet up with friends at a Mexican restaurant, which said friends quickly leave after Celeste and Jesse pontificate about what they’ll order in irritating cartoon voices. They pretend to masturbate a squeeze-bottle of lip balm on the drive home — apparently a regular hobby of theirs.
The aforementioned scenarios are designed as attempts to earn the audience’s sympathy through endearment. But the only viewers who will actually find them endearing are adult-children like Celeste and Jesse, whose only positive response to the material would be to recognize how unbecoming their behavior is and resolve to outgrow their current state. Writers Jones and Will McCormack ultimately allow Celeste and Jesse that dignity of maturation, but they stage the transformation not as a healthy reaction to the immature floundering that the two engage in throughout the movie–Jesse impregnates another woman, Celeste smokes pot and dates creeps–but rather because it was the easiest way to end the movie on a relatively upbeat note.
To pad the runtime, there is a subplot that finds Celeste’s marketing firm–yes, against the odds, she co-owns a functioning company–working for a client that is antithetical to her cultural beliefs: the artistically inept pop-star Riley (Emma Robers). While Roberts does her best Ke$ha/Selena Gomez parody, her increasingly softening interactions with Celeste don’t add much substantive insight to the equation. Elijah Wood is likewise wasted, playing the “gay best friend”-stereotype as effectively as it will allow–which is to say, not very–in the role of Celeste’s business partner.
Through all of the aforementioned criticisms, I do not mean to imply that Celeste and Jesse bear no resemblance to real people. On the contrary, their breed of intelligent, but practically inept hipster adult is an increasingly common one in urban America. As actors, Jones and Samberg are believable and do their darndest to make the characters’ over-written theatrics feel organically obnoxious. But “Celeste and Jesse Forever” is dead-on-arrival in that it fails to approach these characters critically — something that even the rosiest, most sympathetic of portraits must do in order to earn their emotions.