An early bit in Celeste and Jesse Forever is a clever demonstration of a screenwriting trick filmmaker Tony Gilroy (of the Bourne films) calls a “reversal”—we assume that our titular marrieds, played by Rashida Jones (who co-wrote) and Andy Samburg, are happy because they relentlessly joke around. In truth, as it’s soon violently revealed, they’re six months into a separation. Celeste has grown weary of Jesse’s slackerdom romantically if not platonically; Jesse operates under the delusion that she’s one laugh from taking him back. But when Jesse suddenly meets—that is, impregnates—a more serious woman (Rebecca Dayan), the normally logical Celeste finds herself descending into a mad funk.
Celeste and Jesse is neither as broadly comic as Bridesmaids nor as heavily austere as Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz, two semi-recent films it superficially resembles. But at its best, it’s more honest than both. That our happy couple will not regroup is evident, even ignoring the baby angle. But what’s more refreshing is that Celeste is obsessed less with Jesse specifically than with the idea of being single and starting anew, not to mention jealous of his quick turnaround, in part because it betrays her own secret immaturity. The funk she finds herself in is self-conscious, someone enjoying the chance to wallow in misery, booze, bad clothes and pot, aware that she will eventually emerge.
Still, Jones is a better actress than a writer. Finally free of playing the straight man, she proves an engaging and idiosyncratic lead, even as her character turns whiney. (Samburg, in a largely off-screen role, is mostly at sea.) But while Jones (and co-writer Will McCormack) can be uniquely insightful, their jokes are terrible. There are jabs at Miley Cyrus, hippie veganism, Ikea and, for some reason, the film 10,000 B.C. There’s Elijah Wood as a gay bestie cliche (only self-aware!) and a masturbation gag at least as awful as Bridesmaid’s poo spectacle. Celeste and Jesse settles down once it gets in the thick of things, but its humor seems less like a way to lighten a mood that can be pitch black and more like a way to simply avoid seeming as smart as it is.