Talking with ‘Celeste and Jesse Forever’

Celeste and Jesse Forever (Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg)

Over the past few years, deconstructing the romantic comedy has become somewhat of a standard practice amongst art house films. Movies like 500 Days of Summer and The Romantics have redirected the focus of the genre to ask what happens if the fairy tale was an illusion? What happens if after the couple inevitably ends up together, they don’t live happily ever after?

The latest entry to join this batch of films is Celeste and Jesse Forever. An official selection from this year’s Sundance and Los Angeles Film Festivals, the movie is directed by Lee Krieger (The Vicious Kind) and serves as the screenwriting debut from comedienne Rashida Jones (Parks & Recreation, The Office) and her writing partner, Will McCormack. And in addition to writing the film’s uniquely clever and charming script, real-life best friends Jones and McCormack tackled triple duty by also acting in and executive producing this labor of love.

Celeste and Jesse Forever (Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg)

“The minute I came to set, I wanted to not be in writer mode because I respect and trust Lee implicitly,” Jones told me during an interview earlier this week at New York’s Loews Regency Hotel. “He’s really, really good at his job and his job is to tell me what to do, so I wanted to just be there for him as an actress. I didn’t want to deal with anything business-oriented or writer-oriented.”

“I’ll second that,” continued Krieger. “Rashida was great about coming to set and not trying to multitask between takes. It’s a tiny movie, which is kind of an all-hands-on-deck experience. We needed her to just act because it’s such an enormous responsibility to not only carry that part but to carry the movie with that kind of part. It’s a total tour-de-force performance that Rashida gives and I don’t think she could have done it if she were trying to juggle a million things. It was kind of interesting to see how she could just flip a switch and would show up having produced the day before and all of a sudden just be in actor’s mode. It’s the reason the performance is as amazing as it is. She was totally focused on the role.”

Opening in select theaters today, Celeste and Jesse Forever tells the story of a pair of best friends who got married at a young age, only to realize six years later that they’re better suited to be in one another’s lives in a purely non-romantic way. The film opens as Celeste (Jones) and Jesse (Saturday Night Live’s Andy Samberg) are already in the midst of divorce, yet they maintain that they’re still the closest of friends. They hang out everyday, share property, and even gossip about rediscovering their dating lives.

But as their mutual friends not so subtly point out, Celeste and Jesse’s relationship is a little “weird.” How does a couple go immediately from a divorce to being platonic BFFs? For the two of them, their desire to make this transition as painless and natural as possible makes them deny the complications associated with such a sharp relationship shift. Yet inevitably, these things are never as easy as they seem.

After being rejected the morning following a night of drunken sex, Jesse gives up on the idea that him and Celeste still have a chance of getting back together. The timing of this realization couldn’t be more ideal, as he quickly thereafter learns that a one-night stand he had shortly after their divorce is now pregnant.

With emotions running high, Jesse begins to pursue building a new life with the mother of his unborn child. Meanwhile, Celeste starts to second-guess her feelings towards her ex. Now that there is such a finite obstacle in the way of them ending up together, can she really handle just being his friend? Or does she regret not fighting harder for their marriage to work? Thus, the fragile hilarity and chaos of the film ensues.

“I was really wanting to play a dynamic, complicated character,” Jones said of the flawed and often-hypocritical Celeste. “I think I’ve played a lot of nice, sweet, friendly, affable, sturdy, pragmatic characters. We struggled a little bit at the beginning of writing with how unlikable to make her because at some point we wanted people to go along with the ride. But we definitely wanted her to come off hypocritical and judgmental and myopic because it gives her someplace to go. The idea that it takes so much to change yourself a little was important to us but it’s easier to do when you start somebody at a place where they have a lot of flaws that they’re not necessarily conscious of.”

“I have to say, in the wrong hands, Celeste could be really unlikable,” added McCormick. “I think Rashida’s performance does a great job of balancing a performance that’s tricky.”

Featuring an all-star supporting cast that boasts such names as Elijah Wood, Emma Roberts, Chris Messina, Eric Christian Olsen and Ari Graynor, Celeste and Jesse Forever tactfully protests When Harry Met Sally’s thesis that men and women can never be just friends. In this endearing film, that idea is not only challenged, but it’s tested through an Olympic-size obstacle course that includes every curveball life can throw at its protagonists.

As the film progresses, Celeste and Jesse learn that despite whatever variables may contest their relationship, they’ll forever turn to one another. Their connection is so deeply rooted that they’ll always be in one another’s lives in some capacity – even in ways that may seem unrecognizable or foreign at first. But most importantly, they learn that sometimes to love someone is much more powerful than to be in love with someone.

Celeste and Jesse Forever is now playing in select theaters.

Celeste and Jesse Forever

Alex has been writing for PopBytes since 2011. As the Theater Editor, he focuses on all aspects of Broadway, Off-Broadway, Regional Theater, and beyond. Alex lives in Western Massachusetts and can be found on Twitter at @AlexKNagorski.