The Awful Truth
6 August 2012
The awful truth about Celeste and Jesse Forever — not the simple one, which is that “Jesse” doesn’t belong in the title — is that it has a happy ending. A slightly uncertain one, but not the wretched “happy” ending that it might have had in the old days. Which means that it can’t be a screwball comedy, or a “comedy of remarriage.” In a screwball comedy, couples are obliged (often by their own vanity) to learn precisely why they belong together or, in the alternative, why they could never live apart. In Celeste, the title character (Rashida Jones, who also co-wrote the script) learns something else. She learns that today’s college students, no matter how smart, haven’t lived long enough to know how to make truly adult choices. Does this mean that they’re “immature”? You could say that, but you’d miss the point, which is that it takes longer than it used to grow up, and we wouldn’t have it any differently. Celeste learns that it was not a great idea to marry the man of her undergraduate dreams.
This is a lesson that Celeste thinks that she has learned by the opening scene. She has “broken up” with Jesse (Andy Samberg), and apparently the machinery of legal divorce has been set into motion. But they’re still best friends; they still go out to dinner together. She’s very comfortable having him live in the studio behind her house. He’s an artist — gifted, perhaps, but somewhat feckless, and certainly not driven, as Celeste is, to excel at his métier. Celeste’s métier is cool-hunting, trend-seeking. She and her partner, Scott (Elijah Wood), work out of a top-floor office in a shiny glass office building with angular attitude. The screenplay is too clever to comment on the world-historical insignificance of marketing, but it adroitly demonstrates Celeste’s expertise by showing it off in an informal setting. As a way of dismissing a would-be suitor, Paul (Chris Messina), Celeste fixes him with a briskly patient gaze and tells him why he has just replaced his car and his smartphone with models that better express his self-image. Paul looks stunned, but you’re not sure if this is because Celeste has actually nailed him; he just might think that she’s being astonishingly rude. But she has nailed him, as he acknowledges in a later scene. The happy ending of this movie is implicit in Paul’s coming back for more. Celeste may have his number, but his ego is intact. Paul is an adult.
Until Paul makes his advance, after a yoga class (and, yes, he goes to yoga class to meet girls; what could be more adult than that?), Celeste is happy with her broken BFF. She and Jesse really do make a cute couple. They have vast reserves of private jokes and polished routines; like a happily-married couple I know, they could go through an entire day talking in quotations. And they care about one another. Do they ever! Instead of blowing kisses, they raise their arms as if they were holding infants. It’s lovely, and touching, and it tells you that this is not a relationship between grown-ups.
We get to know Celeste very well. Jesse remains a mystery, not necessarily an interesting one. The plot is set into motion by the protests of Beth (Ari Gryanor)and Tucker (Eric Christian Olsen), also best friends from college (the same college!), who are about to get married, and who are not best pleased by the way things have worked out between Jesse and Celeste. You’d think that they’d want the couple to stop talking divorce and keep singing the “made for each other” song, but, again, if Celeste and Jesse Forever tells a well-behaved narrative that observes the traditional pieties about comic timing, it does not do so by telling lies. It is a fantasy only in that it shows the truth so clearly. Beth and Tucker want Celeste and Jesse to move on. The upshot is that Jesse decides to start dating. His counsellor in these matters, a grass dealer called Skillz (Will McCormack, Ms Jones screenwriting partner), reminds him of Veronica, whom Jesse secretly spent the night with three months ago. She was nice, but for some reason Jesse’s shy about a second date. The next thing you know, Jesse runs into Veronica at a bookstore, and smiles and good wishes are exchanged. The rest of this romance develops offstage, and we are not allowed to form an opinion about Veronica. We learn that she got pregnant as a result of the first date, but the only conclusion that we’re permitted to draw from this news is that a person like Celeste — and this is a movie about Celeste — would never allow an unexpected pregnancy to serve as the foundation of a relationship. The fact that Jesse is open to possibility on this front is hard evidence of their profound incompatibility.
In any case, Jesse’s determination to marry Veronica so that she can stay in the country (she’s Belgian!) pushes Celeste into the discomfort zone of signing the divorce papers and facing life truly alone. She falls apart, visually; ordinarily beautiful even when she’s wearing glasses — on Celeste, eyeglasses are a beauty mark signifying the seductions of rampant intelligence — Celeste blurs in overindulgent collapse, eating, drinking, and smoking with abandon. She commits what at first looks like a catastrophic oversight in a major branding project. (But, no! It’s another demonstration of Celeste’s mojo, so cool that she wasn’t even conscious of it!) But she signs the papers, and then she gives Paul a call.
This is not a movie about how a smart woman learns to be grateful and to stop taking thing for granted. There is no comeuppance, no humiliation. Celeste has to realize that she made a mistake with Jesse, and she does; in their last scene, she and Jesse are, finally, not intimate, and Celeste is as willing as Jesse is to keep a distance. They’re sad about it, of course. But sadness is not desperation. There is no ghastly lunge at happy-ever-after. That would be fantasy of a lesser kind. This is a rueful parting, heralded by the last words of Celeste’s matron-of-honor speech at the wedding of Beth and Tucker: you don’t always have to be right, even when you are. With Jesse, it was understood by both of them that Celeste was always right, which effectively put their relationship into a stalemate. How could Jesse ever learn anything for himself? With Veronica, with the sudden prospect of fatherhood, Jesse may have jumped off a cliff, but for once he’s flying solo.
Celeste isn’t someone in need of a spanking. Paul says to her, “I like you. When you’re ready, give me a call.” She does. We don’t know what happens next because, for once, neither does Celeste. Maybe Celeste and Jesse Forever is a screwball after all: Celeste finds out how right she was. I think that that calls for a toast.