When you’re young and in love, “forever” is a word you dare to carve in tree trunks or wedding cakes. Getting older, if you’re not careful, that same word could mean a purgatory of codependence. Such is the wry wisdom of “Celeste and Jesse Forever,” a romantic comedy whose main characters spend the duration figuring out what the audience already knows: not that they belong together, but that breaking up is hard to do.
For the eponymous L.A. couple played by Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg in director Lee Toland Krieger’s film, the courtship phase occurred long ago. Now they’re just two great friends in a failed starter marriage. And as obvious as it is that things won’t work out between Celeste the careerist and Jesse the aimless artist, it’s equally obvious that they’re inseparable. Even after announcing the divorce, they’re still palling around, avowing mutual love, running unabashedly through their familiar repertoire of inside jokes, and seriously weirding out their friends (Ari Graynor and Eric Christian Olsen).
To clarify, Celeste points out, “I love Jesse dearly but he doesn’t have a checking account. Or dress shoes. The father of my children will have a car.” Nor is he much help with assembling her IKEA furniture in any functional way, although he does at least know how to turn it into a cute robot sculpture. Yet as soon as another woman (Rebecca Dayan) appears in Jesse’s life, and he suddenly seems ready for adult responsibility, Celeste reconsiders, albeit indignantly. It’s a complicated bundle of feelings, and Jones nails it.
A professional trend forecaster (she’s written a book called “Shitegeist”), Celeste is accustomed to rattling off pop-cultural pronouncements, and it shows in her withering dismissal of a sweet but slightly unhip financial analyst (Chris Messina) who hits on her in a yoga class. This scene, too, is ingeniously played, a gender reversal of the similar business put over by Woody Allen in “Annie Hall,” to which Carol Kane famously responded, “No, that was wonderful. I love being reduced to a cultural stereotype.” Here, Messina’s character duly allows Celeste’s appraisal of him, admitting that in fact he only took the class to meet girls. Later, it takes an obnoxious young pop star (Emma Roberts) to call her on her habit of “contempt prior to investigation.”
Jones co-wrote the “Celeste and Jesse” script (with actor Will McCormack, who appears here, amusingly, in a supporting role), and she has created an opportunity for herself: to affirm not just her beauty and on-screen appeal, already obvious, but also the range of her emotional intelligence. Accordingly it’s more Celeste’s movie than Jesse’s, and Samberg, for his part, seems relatively and shrewdly subdued; we may venture to say this film better justifies his departure from “Saturday Night Live” than “That’s My Boy.”
Keeping scene transitions stocked with a supportive soundtrack full of soul grooves, Krieger mostly stays out of the characters’ way. The movie seems generous to them, and to its audience. Although not without a few rom-com clichés, it is self-aware, and plainly aspires to the highest standards of the genre. Silly and messy, as you’d expect. Also sad and true.