Celeste and Jesse Forever. Rashida Jones and Will McCormack co-wrote this romantic comedy about a couple who like each other too much to end their marriage and move on. It searches for the truth behind the clichés, sometimes finds it, and other times finds the clichés.
At the beginning of the film, Celeste (Jones) and Jesse (famed phallopyxistor Andy Samberg, who slips easily into an emotionally grounded seriocomic acting register) drive their friends crazy by neither breaking up nor staying together. They discuss menus in German accents and inhabit extended inside jokes that are conceptually funny but embarrassing to watch, as if seeing friends reenact an SNL sketch they saw and you didn’t. The couple hasn’t spent more than a week apart since the 10th grade, but Celeste has been growing up faster than Jesse. “The father of my child will have a car,” she tells a friend. It’s a bit cold, but also realistic; she’s ready for an adult relationship, and ready to admit that her first marriage isn’t one.
I went in expecting to love it, found myself hating it for the first 20 minutes, and gradually settled into genuine fondness. The movie doesn’t quite settle on a tone. In one scene, Jones gets hit on by a guy in her yoga class. He laughs when she tells him he’s a trend-spotter; she responds by “reading” him:
You traded in your Porsche for an Audi because the economy’s still tanking, and you’re afraid you’ll lose your job. You just bought a Droid cell phone because you think it makes you seem more business-oriented instead of an iPhone, which you think is for teenage girls. You go to yoga because you went to a sub-Ivy League school, and you spent the last ten years working long hours and drinking all weekend and you thought it was time to do something spiritual.
It encapsulates both what’s pedestrian and what’s compelling about Celeste and Jesse Forever. It’s a gimmicky, stagey sequence — overweening wish-fulfillment, disproportionately cruel, and already done.
But one of those things is not like the other — Celeste is disproportionately cruel, because she’s convinced of her own rightness, and the movie gradually calls her on it. (She’s a classic enneagram type 1. I bet there’s one or two here. Take the test.) While the movie’s finding its tonal footing, it’s hard to tell whether she’s an asshole because romantic leads are terrible people, or because she’s daring to play a a genuinely unsympathetic character (a higher-stakes proposition for female romcom leads than for cable drama male antiheros). By the second half, however, the film has scattered enough intimate character moments amid the schtick, including a few remarkable handheld shots where the camera just lingers on Jones in her discomfort, that it earns real emotional investment.
And much the schtick delivers the goods. Celeste and Jesse Forever has a reserve army of quirky characters who pay off in myriad ways, whether through clockwork plotting or sweet characterization. McCormack’s character, a disarming drug dealer named Skillz, has a terrific scene where he susses out his own prospects with Celeste — the two co-writers have a unique ease playing with one another.
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. Ricki Stern and Anne Lundberg made this hilarious, compelling documentary. It follows Joan Rivers at age 75 through a rough career patch and into a renaissance. Rivers’s fevered work process, her desperate need for both critical and commercial success, her personality and her comedy are all on display. It’s impossible to dismiss Rivers’s work, either for its importance (“I’m not ready to be called an icon. I don’t want to be told thank you. Fuck you.”) or its enduring quality. The lady is straight-up funny. And she’s perpetually on the lookout for threats — even as she banters affectionately with Kathy Griffin, who testifies to Rivers’s importance, she’s also grousing that she’d be working more if Griffin weren’t so popular. (On Louie, it’s Betty White who’s eating her lunch.)
The documentary itself is well-made — it wouldn’t need to be, with such a subject, but it take pains to construct a story arc that’s both recognizable — fall and rise, rebirth — and persuasively real, letting Rivers express herself in all her schmaltzy, spangly, vengeful glory. One subplot sees her determined to return to prime time NBC, from which she was banned after leaving Carson for her own, failed Fox late night show, by winning Celebrity Apprentice. Her desire for revenge is unholy.
The movie’s especially crafty in how it makes Rivers appeal to the kind of viewers who would watch an IFC documentary, showing her work small rooms, showing her early appearances as a ground-breaking funny woman, showing her labor over jokes, pulling them from a card catalog, writing them on big pieces of cardboard (fun fact: Joan Rivers spells it “vigina”). The Joan Rivers I grew up on, the Carson guest host who epitomized mainstream comedy, is minimized. There’s a hint of what Rivers would think about the documentary, or about her recent turn on Louie — she’d appreciate the new eyes and the cultural cachet, but she’d want to know what exactly it could get her. Her eye is on the prize; she lives “like Marie Antoinette if she had money” and while her ego feeds on critical stroking, reverence is only good if she can turn it into revenue, if it will get her out of the clubs and into the 4,000-seat rooms.
What did you see, in how big a room?