Self Punishment, by David Bax
Immediately following the screening of Celeste and Jesse Forever, I checked the press notes because I was sure I’d been mistaken in thinking that Rashida Jones, who plays the titular Celeste, was also one of the film’s screenwriters. Yet there was her name, undeniably credited next to Will McCormack, who also appears. My only thought was, “Why would she do that to herself?”
Jones’ Celeste is in the process of getting divorced from her husband and still best friend in the world, Jesse (Andy Samberg). Their feelings about the breakup aren’t entirely mutual but after an unfortunate incident and an ensuing coincidence, they become driven further apart. The rest of the story, which comes in at under 90 minutes but feels like a marathon, concerns Celeste trying to work through a situation she initiated while coming to terms with the fact that Jesse is weathering it much better.
Despite the fact that Celeste hasn’t really done anything wrong, the screenplay becomes immediately obsessed with punishing her. She falls into a trashcan with Jesse and his new girlfriend looking on. She goes out with a seemingly nice guy who suddenly insists on ejaculating on her despite the fact that it’s their first date and that’s a tad forward. She even ruins another date herself by obsessing over her ex. That brings me to why I convinced myself Jones had not written the movie. It feels for all the world like it was dreamed up by a loser guy wanting to act out revenge on the woman who dumped him.
Really, though, these character’s lives before the divorce weren’t any better. They simply – like so many others who are trying too hard to be cool to actually enjoy their lives – didn’t realize that they were living in hell. I may be in roughly the same age range and (very) roughly the same income bracket as these characters and I may also share some of the same tastes but I found nothing substantively recognizable or even all that human in their existences. They seem, for instance, to choose their clothes to match whatever fashionably off-kilter restaurant or bar they’re going to. Furthermore, any two people who stumble drunkenly out of a concert loudly singing a song by the artist they just saw would not be cool. Everyone would hate them.
If the laughable habits of financially comfortable people straining to maintain indie cred aren’t enough to turn you off, the film is also full of equally terrible movieland clichés. Celeste’s drinking as a coping mechanism is depicted as comedic when in reality, her friends would either drive her to the emergency room or just stop hanging out with her. We are also treated to an argument that starts indoors but then bursts out onto the sidewalk in order for the characters to scream passionately at one another. In real life, this practice can only be witnessed among teenagers and drama majors. Finally, one of cinema’s most grating clichés turns up when we get the toast at someone else’s wedding that’s really all about the one giving the speech but everyone finds it charming and moving anyway.
Really, the insulting tropes don’t let up. Celeste also has a seemingly very important job at which she is obviously terrible. At best, she is completely uninterested in it. In fact, a major plot point – one that ends up being positive for her – hinges on her incompetence. This involves Emma Roberts as a pop star whose purpose is to clearly enunciate Celeste’s flaws so that the audience can recognize them and be glad when she attempts to change them.
Jesse’s story, which we see piecemeal through Celeste’s eyes, might in fact be the more interesting one, even if the film doesn’t think so. He starts out as a loser in a way that we’re perhaps meant to interpret as cute but is really just loserish. Then he works his way through both internal and external obstacles to try to be a better person. It’s essentially the same story as Knocked Up but it’s better than Celeste’s. Jones is a talented actor who deserves more than the punishment of this role. Or maybe she actually is in need of comeuppance. She did, after all, write the movie for herself.