Rashida Jones is pretty but not in a conventional movie star way — she seems to have too much on her mind. She has some of the elegance of her mother, ’60s TV star Peggy Lipton, but without the hippie spaciness, and her sharp chin and mischievous eyes recall her father, producer-composer Quincy Jones. There’s a quickness to Jones that lets her keep up with the boys in comedies like “I Love You, Man’’ and dramas like “The Social Network,’’ and there’s a directness, too, that bespeaks ambition. The surprise of “Celeste and Jesse Forever’’ isn’t that she co-wrote a screenplay but that it took her so long.
It’s an LA romance — an anti-romance, really, and written with a warm, slightly blinkered insider’s eye to the city and its neighborhoods. The movie is sardonic, hip, heartfelt, surprisingly white, and for all its ensemble pleasures, it’s squarely about a furiously prim young woman and how she learns to bend. Most movies deliver the falling-in-love montage 30 minutes in, but “Celeste and Jesse Forever’’ gets it over with before the opening credits roll, and you can’t help noticing that it’s a falling-out-of-love montage as well. Celeste (Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg) are husband and wife and the best of friends, but the two relationships no longer have anything to do with each other.
This drives their friends batty. Beth (Ari Graynor) and her fiance Tucker (Eric Christian Olsen) fume at the happily separated couple over dinner, and even Celeste and Jesse have to admit it’s weird that she lives in the house while he has set up camp in his studio out back. Jesse’s an artist and a man-child — Samberg delivers a quietly effective performance without ever quite convincing you he’s an actor — while Celeste is a professional trend analyst with a newly published book. She judges everything and everyone in sharp, ruthless sound bites and slowly we begin to marvel that Jesse lasted as long as he did.
The movie captures the rhythms of a generation striving for success while struggling to stay bohemian (they are the children of the ’60s). The secondary characters all have an air of befuddlement as they search for their bliss — they’re fretful slackers. Co-writer Will McCormack plays Jesse’s pot dealer, Skillz, as a graciously concerned surfer dude, and Emma Roberts shows up as a vacuous Ke$ha-style pop superstar whom Celeste loathes on principle before their mutual insecurities bring them together. The one character that probably worked better on paper is Celeste’s business partner Scott (Elijah Wood), who tries to be her sassy gay friend but just isn’t very good at it. Wood finds the awkwardness in the part but not the charm.
Despite its title, “Celeste and Jesse’’ is less about couples than ambitious single women and their despair about accepting other people’s imperfections and their own. A scene in which Celeste takes one look at the guy sweet-talking her after yoga class and breaks down his life into precise demographic details is as cruel to us as it is to him. (Yet he sticks around and becomes Celeste’s potential savior; only Chris Messina’s relaxed dignity keeps the character from seeming like a masochist.)
Director Lee Toland Krieger paces the movie well even when no one seems sure where it’s going, and Jones finds both humor and sympathy in a control freak spinning out of control. The film’s comedy veers from the farcically on-target (Celeste busted by Jesse while dumpster-diving outside his house) to the cartoonishly broad (Celeste drunk and passed out on a swimming pool raft during a party), and the script’s inside jokes (Celeste and Jesse like to pretend-masturbate baby carrots and tubes of lip balm) are funny the first time and less so on repeat.
But the movie feels lived in by its characters and its makers, which is more than you can say for most romantic comedies, indie or otherwise. And Jones can’t be faulted for writing what she knows. I just hope she knows more her next time out.