"Would you rather be right or would you rather be happy?"
Romantic comedies are a dime a dozen. They used to be simple. Guy and girl meet cute, fall for each other despite being mismatched in some way, and finally, after going through some stumbling blocks, they end up together, maybe after the man tears through an airport to get the girl just as she's about to leave his life forever. You had a few outliers, like Woody Allen, who made movies about people who fell in and out of love, as people seem to do in the real world, but for the most part the formula ruled the roost. The proliferation of faux-indie filmmaking has given rise to a new paradigm: A semi-functional man child gets dumped by his too-attractive girlfriend, and then meets some wacky, all too unique woman (the technical term is "Manic Pixie Dream Girl") who guides him into adulthood. I'm not sure which is worse, the traditional Hollywood formula or the Manic Pixie Dream Girl model. No matter which one you hate more, 'Celeste and Jesse Forever' manages to sidestep all of them.
Rashida Jones plays Celeste, a successful woman living in Los Angeles. She's married to Jesse (Andy Samberg), the love of her life. The two go everywhere together, do everything together, and are absolutely best friends. They're also getting divorced. Jesse's living in Celeste's guesthouse, unemployed and still in love with her. Celeste has no intention of getting back together with Jesse, until he reveals that he's gotten another woman pregnant and wants to start a new life with her. Now Celeste has to figure out what she's going to do with herself when all of her preconceptions are shattered.
Rashida Jones has been a shining star in the world of comedy, creating memorable turns in 'The Office', 'Parks and Recreation', and films like 'I Love You, Man'. She's smart, funny, and beautiful, and for the first time she's writing her own material, with co-writer Will McCormack. The result is that Celeste is a fully realized character, not some caricature like Summer in '500 Days of Summer' (the epitome of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl movement), or some unreasonably beautiful girl pining away for a humdrum guy like Elizabeth Olson in 'Liberal Arts'. Celeste is smart and driven, but flawed, with the perpetual need to always be right. In an early scene, Celeste overhears pop star Riley Banks (Emma Roberts) say she needs a new "skin regime". Celeste corrects her, saying the correct word is "regimen", and then proceeds to look the word up and gloat over it during a meeting.
Andy Samberg gives a rare dramatic performance as Jesse, Celeste's put-upon ex. He's not perfect either (he spends most of his days watching re-runs of old Olympics), but he's got a good heart and genuinely tries to better himself. It's a breath of fresh air to see a film about a break-up where neither party is perfect and both are basically good. The film does a great job showing how complicated and messy it is to grow away from someone you've been close with for decades, and how there are no simple answers. The movie manages to avoid almost every cliché of the genre, presenting events as they make sense for the characters and allowing them to actually change as people.
'Celeste and Jesse Forever' isn't just one big downer, though. There's a lot of comedy woven through, from a string of disastrous dates for Celeste through to her job doing marketing for the aforementioned Riley Banks. Elijah Wood provides a bit of color as Celeste's business partner, who's gay but can't seem to ever pull off his gayness appropriately. Co-writer Will McCormack also pulls off some necessary comic relief as Skillz, Celeste's pot dealer and Jesse's friend. Chris Messina, currently of 'The Mindy Project', is also endearingly awkward as Paul, a man who hits on Celeste at yoga.
'Celeste and Jesse Forever' is not presumptuous. It doesn't try to say everything about romance and relationships, all tied up in a little bow. It's small scale, focusing on the personal experiences of these particular people. Director Lee Toland Krieger doesn't play cinematic tricks. He just lays things out and lets the script and the actors do their thing, and the final product is better for it. When people talk about indie movies nowadays, they usually mean a film that's overly quirky, whose characters all have exaggerated traits, and a director who throws everything and the kitchen sink into the style. 'Celeste and Jesse Forever' is the exact opposite, a movie based on real experiences that doesn't rely on gimmicks to sell itself. It's a quality script, performed by good actors, and the end result is one of the best films of 2012, and one of the best relationship films in recent memory.
'Celeste and Jesse Forever' is the anti-'500 Days of Summer', and thank goodness it is. Romance cinema needs more films like this. So long, Manic Pixie Dream Girl, don't let the door hit your ass on the way out.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment delivers 'Celeste and Jesse Forever' in a standard Blu-ray case, with an inner-sleeve image of Samberg and Jones sitting on the steps outside Celeste's house. The disc has a good resume feature that will remember where you left off and what settings you had chosen.
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment presents 'Celeste and Jesse Forever' in an AVC-encoded, 2.40:1 1080p transfer. Cinematographer David Lanzenberg shot the film with a pre-dominance of earth tones and a warm palette. The transfer reproduces this well, with strong saturated colors and well-defined contrast. Detail is excellent. When Celeste escapes to her bathroom after learning that Jesse is having a kid with another woman, you can see individual freckles on her face. Fleshtones are very accurate. Shadow delineation is also good, with dark scenes coming across with almost as much detail as daylight ones. I noticed no compression artifacts or other encoding issues, but, and this is a purely subjective comment here, the transfer felt flatter than the print I saw in the cinema. Something about it lacked a certain dimensionality to it. That is something I doubt most people would notice in this otherwise excellent transfer.
'Celeste and Jesse Forever' comes equipped with a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix. As a comedy/drama, there's nothing here that will tax your receiver in the slightest. What the mix does well is produce a comfortable soundstage that the mix rests in. Surrounds are mainly used for music and subtle ambient effects, but these do a good job of enveloping the listener and making the soundtrack feel full without resorting to flashy effects. Dialogue is clear, although in some scenes I did detect a harshness to the sibilants, but you'll never have a problem hearing any character, even with Celeste's many quiet asides. This isn't a mix you'll play to show off your sound system, but it sounds perfectly good while it's playing.
'Celeste and Jesse Forever' is a smart, insightful film about relationships that doesn't ever condescend to its audience. The characters are three-dimensional, not caricatures, and the script by Rashida Jones and Will McCormack is both funny and convincingly dramatic. Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg ably anchor the film with strong, astute performances. The Blu-ray has a great image transfer, a passable audio mix, and a good set of supplements that cover the gamut from informational to hilarious. 'Celeste and Jesse Forever' is an unassuming film, but that didn't stop it from being one of my favorite films of 2012. Highly recommended.