More than twenty years ago, WHEN HARRY MET SALLY wondered aloud if men and women could actually be friends. The theory it floated was that such a concept wasn’t possible because “the sex always gets in the way”. The thing is, that movie and that theory was pointed at single men and women being “just friends”. Now along comes a new film, in a new age, with a new question: Can men and women who have broken up with each other actually be friends?
It seems plausible, right? You can focus on what you like about the other person, do the things you like to do, keep to yourself when you want to and not be affected by those qualities in them you didn’t like.
It might seem that way when you’re standing on the inside looking out. Unfortunately though, everyone has to go outside some time…and that’s when the answer to that big question gets a bit trickier.
Celeste and Jesse (Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg) have been separated for six months and are about to get divorced: Not that you’d ever know that if you hung out with them. They joke around like a college couple, share each other’s food, and seem like the perfect pair. To them, the separation is a good thing because it allows their friendship to continue even if the romance isn’t working. To their friends however, it seems weird (It probably doesn’t help that Jesse is still living in the guest house of their once-shared home).
In the rare moments that Celeste isn’t palling around with Jesse, she’s playing general know-it-all, pushing a book she’s just written, and working at a PR firm that has just signed on a glossy pop starlet that completely counteracts her book’s position. Jesse meanwhile is trying to get his shit together, which includes an attempt at moving on from Celeste by beginning to date a new woman. As things progress in that relationship, he informs Celeste that he’ll be moving out.
This throws Celeste for a loop, and gives these longtime companions a few challenges to overcome. It causes Jesse to confront his stunted maturity, it causes Celeste to wonder if Jesse’s relationship is doomed to fail, and it brings all of their friends and colleagues into the fray as a support network.
The most interesting challenge though? What will become of their friendship when their first priority in life is no longer each-other?
CELESTE AND JESSE makes a major decision that makes it difficult to completely deconstruct: It never shows us who Celeste and Jesse when their relationship was working, or why they decided to finally end things. There is a montage of the former, and allusions to the latter, but nothing definitive for either one. This decision puts us as observers at a major disadvantage, since we can’t fully form an opinion on whether the couple were good together, or what we feel about why they broke up. While it focuses our attention on the here and now of their post-marriage lives, it denies us that little bit of context that could sway our opinions on these characters and their story.
I think the film keeps those elements out of the equation, because it wants us to focus on what breaking up has become in this day and age. True, sometimes it is a result of infidelity, abuse, or reduced attraction, but with each passing year it seems as though more and more marriages end because people outgrow each other. They don’t stop caring about each other – sometimes they still really like each other – but where the daily routine is concerned, they find that those little things have just grown too annoying to handle anymore. We get the impression that Jesse could have been more driven, and Celeste could have been less direct. Are those characteristics that could cause division? Sure. Are they traits that should end an entire marriage? Depends on who you ask. Go back a generation or two and they wouldn’t have thought so. The couples of the marrying age now? To them it feels like justifiable grounds.
That’s not to say I agree or disagree with the mindset, just that I find it an interesting place we’ve come to.
Equally interesting is the way Rashida Jones and Will McCormack wrote the role of Celeste. She’s a complicated character, and plays mostly in the area of the map between “mess” and “unlikable”. She does most of the film’s heavy lifting, yet never gets our complete sympathy. My best guess to why is that glint in her eye we catch sometimes when she thinks she’s smarter than someone else. She’s not wrong, but being smarter doesn’t make her better – and we subtly start wishing she’d understand that. The other detail that holds us back from feeling for her lot in life, is that the notion of Jesse being with another women is what causes her to start coming unravelled. Seems a bit selfish, doesn’t it? She doesn’t want him – she even specifically rebukes him after a drunken relapse – but knowing that someone else does send this smart, confident woman into a tailspin. It’s not the most attractive role to play, and watching Jones pull it off is fascinating.
What CELESTE AND JESSE wants us to remember, is that everything in our lives needs to be considered from all sides. It’s summed up in an offhanded observation about Walt Disney Concert Hall, which we get the idea Celeste isn’t crazy about aesthetically, until she points out that she’d never seen it lit up at night. We might think a situation is working well for us, until the other person wants something more. Further, we might think a situation works well for us, until we realize it puts those we care about in a difficult position. The trick is to take that extra moment and to consider what could happen if we were on the other side of the line. It’s only when we’re able to do such things that we’re able to see the whole picture.