"Celeste and Jesse Forever" doesn't want you to confuse it with those "other" indie romantic comedies. But you definitely will. The genuinely refreshing central premise is weighed down by the shopworn tropes of self-conscious banter, quirky rituals, and of course, the requisite shots of funny faces in a photo booth.
When we first meet Celeste (Rashida Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg), they look to be your typical happy, cloyingly cute couple - who just so happen to live separately. As their entire backstory is chronicled in a behind-the-opening-credits montage scene, we are left to piece together what went wrong. We quickly learn through familiar cues that Celeste is a Type A Career Woman and Jesse is a wayward artist, an affable man-child who cries watching a weightlifting competition on TV and who cares more about catching a good wave than finding a decent job. Still, we are never permitted to know precisely what the breaking point was for Celeste, who initiated the separation - but who cannot bear to be apart from her best friend and soon-to-be ex-husband.
The audience will be sympathetic to friends' frustrations about the estranged couple's persistent bond, which forcefully begs the question of why they are divorcing at all. It's certainly not for any lack of chemistry: Jesse and Celeste's differences have the potential to be reconciled, at least from the perspective of an outsider looking in. And though the pair keeps the audience at arm's length, you can't help but root for both of them, even when their individual aims conflict.
If Celeste is supposedly unlikeable -- as Jones said she intentionally drew her -- then so is pretty much every non-doormat female I know. In the world of "Celeste and Jesse," the nerve to expect the father of your children to have a checking account is considered a character flaw. But none of Celeste's shortcomings -- even the real ones -- are offensive enough that you wouldn't want someone like her as a friend. The same goes for almost every character in the film: it's been a long time since such a casually endearing ensemble shared a screen together.
Jones, who co-wrote the screenplay with her former flame-cum-BFF Will McCormack, almost brings too much to the performance. If her intent was to demonstrate that she has earned the right to a semi-serious leading role, the message is received loud and clear. McCormack, too, takes advantage of every second of screen time he gets as Skillz, the hilarious and surprisingly sweet dope-shilling friend of the couple who not-so-surprisingly gets the best lines. Samberg, who has previously proven that he can dial it down, could almost be accused of dialing in his performance here - he is as resigned to let Jones shine as Jesse once was to let her win.
The character of Veronica (Rebecca Dayan), Celeste's romantic rival and the source of the only truly surprising plot point in the movie, is almost comically underdeveloped, as is her relationship with Jesse. But the gracious beauty -- who Celeste calls "a young version of me" -- serves her purpose, illustrating the writers' point well: "Simple" doesn't always have to mean stupid. Whether or not she can actually act -- this movie gives no indication -- expect to see the gorgeous Dayan in bigger Hollywood roles, and less clothing, by this time next year.
Lee Toland Krieger ("The Vicious Kind") is another one to watch. The young director's style is mostly straightforward, as it should be in a film like this: When he does allow us to see his fingerprints on the screen -- particularly in a beautifully shot wedding party sequence -- the effects are quietly sublime. It was a pleasure to see Elijah Woods, who appears to be aging backwards, as Celeste's amiably put-upon coworker. And everyone should have a friend like Ari Graynor's Beth, the group's supportive glue who refuses to enable her friends' self- destructive behavior.
Though the goodwill of the filmmakers' leaps off the screen, "Celeste and Jesse Forever" never adds up to more than the sum of its parts. Before Jones and McCormack take another stab at writing -- and we hope they do-- they both need to learn that refusing to deliver a predictable conclusion isn't enough to offer.