After seeing the new film Celeste and Jesse Forever, I was reminded of something writer dream hampton once said to me regarding the whiteness of the independent film industry. We were talking about how these sorts of films are often prompted by personal stories that reflect the filmmaker’s individual reality. Citing the landmark 1995 indie film Kids as an example, dream said: "So if your reality, Larry Clarke, is a bunch of white kids doing drugs and saying 'nigga' all day, then that's fine. That's your reality."
At the end of “Celeste and Jesse,” which is co-written and co-produced by Rashida Jones (Quincy Jones' daughter with white actress Peggy Lipton) with her writing partner Will McCormick, I felt like saying: “So if your reality, Rashida Jones, is a bunch of so-hip-they’re-anti-hip white LA thirtysomethings smoking weed, eating orange cheese balls, and saying ‘totally’ all day, then that’s fine. That’s your reality.” And yet, I kind of wish it wasn’t.
Like fellow light-skinned, biracial actress Maya Rudolph, Jones, who also stars as Amy Poehler's best friend on NBC’s Parks and Recreation, tends to play “raceless” characters in her film and television roles. And it’s not that she has to wear a t-shirt announcing her Black power pride, but it might be nice if there was at least some kind of acknowledgement or evidence that race matters, or has had an influence on her life. Other than Jones herself, two or three Black wedding guests and two Black divorce lawyers that appear toward the end (none of which have speaking parts), the film’s central cast is all white. This feels different from the lofty expectation that a white screenwriter (Jessica Westfeldt; Friends with Kids) or TV writer (Lena Dunham; Girls) who also stars in her work would create a world that includes a surplus of Black friends. But Quincy's baby? No Black friends? Bummer.
Having said that, Celeste and Jesse Forever, directed by Lee Toland Krieger (The Vicious Kind), is a fine little film that is not without its charm and genuinely laugh-out-loud moments. Jones plays Celeste, a bossy and righteous trend forecaster who has built a reasonably successful PR company, and also recently penned a book called "Shitegeist." She is married to Jesse, played by former SNL cast member (and Dick in a Box duet partner to Justin Timberlake) Andy Samberg, an artist without a checking account, or his own car, as Celeste is quick to point out. They met in college and are married for six years before they decide to separate, but remain best friends, which addles their mutual friends who try not to take sides but are nonetheless perplexed (and annoyed) by the whole dynamic.
It's never outright stated what the reason is for their separation, but the clear implication is that Jesse is taking too long to grow up and become a responsible adult, and Celeste wants someone who is already a grown up responsible adult.
And so the film unfolds as Celeste and Jesse continue to hang out together every day, revel in their inside jokes and funny accents, with Jesse living in his art studio behind Celeste’s house. Until things get complicated, as they are wont to do.
A boozy night that includes an Ikea dresser results in Celeste and Jesse sleeping together, which Jesse wrongly assumes means a reconciliation. After that he moves on, and Celeste does not. She realizes she has taken Jesse for granted. Several more plot points ensue. They date other people. Jesse’s one night stand resurfaces pregnant with his baby, and he decides to make it work with her. Celeste is devastated, and goes on a bender. I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s likely not what you expected it to be.
The dialogue is often witty (“We should probably get Nick Nolte out of the pool,” Jesse says, referring to a drunk Celeste who has passed out on a floaty at her best friend’s wedding shower.), if occasionally trite (“Are you seriously doing this right now?” is Celeste’s response to a guy trying to pick her up at a yoga class.). And there are solid performances, especially by McCormick, who plays Skillz, the couple’s pot dealer pal who attempts to counsel and comfort them both through their separation: by going to a Biz Markie concert with Jesse, and providing bong hits to Celeste.
In some ways, I get it. Like Celeste, I was the maid of honor for my white best friend at her mostly white wedding. I know that friendships are like loverships in that you become friends with someone in the same way you fall in love; you are drawn to people you find attractive, with whom you share a sense of humor and can relate to on some level. But I have always found it important to also have close friends who I can’t always relate to — whose experiences, particularly regarding race and culture, are different from mine. Not simply because I’m Black, but because I truly believe that we need to model our small picture on what we hope for the big picture. To me, that picture goes beyond whiteness. But if that’s not your reality, Rashida Jones, then that’s not your reality.