The easiest way to put divorce onscreen is to slap a couple of clearly mismatched souls up there and proceed to show them bickering over money, property, the kids, the family dog. Celeste and Jesse Forever takes the harder and more honorable way, giving us two people who genuinely care for each other, who are perhaps perfect for each other in all the ways you can list on paper, and who still fall victim to some essential loneliness that seems to be hardwired into their union.
It's a highly imperfect movie — many of the gags are strained, a bit too pleased with their own finger-on-the-pulse zinginess — but it still represents a breakthrough of sorts, a way of looking at marriage that resists portraying a "failed" marriage as a failure.
Celeste and Jesse Forever was directed by Lee Toland Krieger (his previous features include 2009's The Vicious Kind, with Adam Scott) and co-written by Rashida Jones and Will McCormack, both of whom appear in the movie. Jones stars as Celeste, an executive at some sort of hip marketing firm who, as the movie opens, is in the process of getting a divorce from her husband of seven years or so, Andy Samberg's Jesse, a lackadaisical artist type.
To its credit, Celeste and Jesse Forever doesn't go into the minute whys and wherefores of how the union went wrong, perhaps a way of honoring the bittersweet reality that no one can really know the truth of a marriage except the two people in it. Instead, the picture focuses on all the ways in which Celeste and Jesse are right for each other: A close friend of the couple, played by the marvelous, perpetually exasperated Ari Graynor, announces her frustration with them as they indulge in one of their many in-jokes, in this case musing aloud over a restaurant menu in phony German scientist voices.
Celeste and Jesse, we learn, are in the process of splitting up, yet they still spend all of their time together. Why not, considering each is the best possible audience for the other's jokes? Jesse hasn't even fully moved out of the couple's cozy-spacious bungalow; he's simply decamped to his studio, a little guesthouse out back.
But fairly early in the story, Jesse drops a little bomb, one that hastens the couple's round-tuit divorce toward finality. And Celeste, who of the two always seemed more comfortable with the notion of getting on with things, begins to have her doubts about the singlehood that suddenly yawns before her. This is really Jones' film — Samberg is pleasingly low-key (at least for Samberg), but he's more of a noodly presence dancing on the periphery. Celeste is the one who does most of the reckoning here — as well as most of the post-breakup drinking and falling apart — and Jones plays her with the right doses of restraint and winsome goofiness.
She's sometimes let down, though, by Krieger's filmmaking choices: During what's supposed to be one of the film's most piercing moments, he trains the camera on her in tight, film-school closeups. It's the sort of self-conscious trick that throws all the weight on the acting; any delicacy of feeling is crushed.
But Celeste and Jesse Forever at least tries to scrabble at the roots of what happens when two people who genuinely love each other are challenged with the necessity of parting. Like any self-respecting romantic comedy, it offers a selection of good second bananas, one of whom — a super-wired pot dealer named Skillz — is played with amusing jitteriness by Jones' co-writer, McCormack. And the film has the right and proper ending, instead of the easy, crowd-pleasing one. Certain kinds of loneliness can bond two people together even as it drives them apart. Maybe it's more depressing to watch that onscreen, in its concentrated form, than it is to actually live through it — life, at least, is spread out conveniently into days, months and years. And maybe Celeste and Jesse Forever sometimes works too hard at being funny-sad. Still, it's admirable in its pursuit of an unnamable beast that's elusive and fragile: The funny sadness of the whole damn thing.