So in my lifetime, I’ve seen probably triple digits-worth of romantic comedies, a good number of them directly romantic and most of them dressed as different styles of movies–spy movies (Duplicity) or action movies (Knight and Day) or kids movies (Princess Bride). Occasionally you get a decent movie out of one of these that’s kinda schlocky, but funny, and has a personal piece in there that’s touching. Most of them talk about idealized love or detail-oriented love and come up with maybe one or two universalisms about pain and hurt and love and so on.
And then there’s the other kind of romantic movies, the ones that try to make them serious and usually get either extremely depressing or end up unfulfilling–your Leaving Las Vegases, your Blue Valentines, your Revolutionary Roads, etc. Eugh.
In the last decade, I can name one romantic movie that pulled us in and disturbingly hit the right chords of funny, endearing, sweet, beautiful, terrifying, painful, and personal and it was so loaded half of it wasn’t even about actually being in love (Eternal Sunshine). (PS, fuck When Harry Met Sally.)
Celeste and Jesse aims just below that and hits its target, showing a sweet love that’s personal, and ultimately painful, but without trying to actively show us a horror story.
Celeste and Jesse promoted itself as a movie about two best friends who were married and got divorced and them working through that. This is kind of true. They divorce. Celeste plays with Jesse a bit and, after one night where they sleep together despite being divorced, he thinks he’s back in and she spurns him. So he gets up and leaves.
It shakes her world. The movie then follows her meltdown.
While he moves on, wisely, she struggles to adapt. It doesn’t play with us or try to make a Love Hurts montage; he clearly wasn’t treated as an equal in the relationship and was the one to realize it first instead. Celeste, who’s clearly in denial about a number of things, denies it and is devastated when he decides to move on with a different woman.
Jones plays the part jarringly well. She becomes a hot mess. When she cries, you cry. Her neurosis isn’t quite our neurosis, but you sympathize for her without being her. You feel bad for her because she’s done this to herself and her self-righteousness–which is softly pointed out by a potential love interest here and there–keeps her from realizing it.
Maybe the finest part of the movie, and the truest to life, is how Celeste can sometimes navigate through her world and sometimes can’t. Emotions are presented as tethers on a string and not a narrative. She hates dating, she’s nervous, she’s anxious, she’s angry, she’s depressed, she’s anxious and then when she’s dealing with a date, she’s kind of charming again. She doesn’t overcome immediately. In fact, it takes a huge portion of the movie, which is about the right amount. She does, however, manage to handle work decently, in spite of a pretty big slip.
The pain of a break-up is universal, which is why it’s in movies so often, but it’s so rarely made personal for us as it is in this one. Instead of trying to make it universal, the movie makes it particularly personal, which is what MAKES it universal.
There’s one particular scene where Jesse comes to her and his life is kind of out of order too and he’s unsure of what he’s doing. They make out a little and then he makes the smart decision to leave. When they meet up in the next scene to talk about it, she puts her heart on the line, offering it up to him, which she’d denied the entire movie, and he rolls his eyes and leaves. They fight and she sees red and says self-righteous little bits that are meant to be hurtful but aren’t because he’s seen this dog and pony show before. He sees the bigger picture and she still hasn’t at that point.
She reminded me of an ex or two. She’s an ubiquitous woman whose details are so specific we’ve all known her at some point in the movie, even as she changes in the movie. If Samberg’s character was developed more, you could see the same thing on his side.
And then the movie hangs a lot onto its subtlety, often having the characters just do something that goes against their character. (As opposed to most movies where a straight-laced character shockingly does Y and best friend character says “Jamie, you never do Y!!”). The great news is the movie finds that gap between showing too much and not showing enough and having to explain. If not for that, the movie completely wouldn’t work.
Celeste and Jesse ends up being about self-discovery and recovering from a disrupted world view, but through a personal lens. Celeste isn’t some weak-willed woman who’s wilted by losing a man; she’s a strong woman whose world has been shaken to its core. She overcomes.
Tackling love as an evolving, changing spectacle of highs and lows is an extremely dangerous endeavor, especially in movies, which only get an hour and a half of your attention. C + J doesn’t try to accomplish all of that, but it covers the desperation and the myopia people experience in their own relationships. When that myopia is challenged, worlds fall apart. That’s what makes this movie universal, understandable, painful, sweet and personal.
You can almost see if this movie wasn’t handled so directly by Jones and McCormick, who both star in it (McCormick is the second male lead), it would’ve been half the movie it is.
The other obvious comparison to this movie is 500 Days of Summer. What Summer accomplished was finding the humor in the pain because it’s universal. But C + J figured out why that pain is there and exposed it: break ups happen because someone realizes something before the other. While Celeste realized when they got divorced that he wasn’t shaping up, they both strung each other along. When Jesse realized he would never be his equal while they were together, it hit something at her core. And that’s what made this movie so funny, terrifying, painful and personal. It’s what makes this movie the second-best romance movie of the last decade.
See it when you get a chance.