The titular characters of Celeste and Jesse Forever, Celeste (Rashida Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg), love each other but they’re not forever, in fact much of the film is devoted to their agonized attempts to end their starter marriage. She’s ambitious. He’s aimless and hasn’t lived up to her expectations that he will both adore and challenge her (he only does the former). While it features some comic moments and situations, Celeste and Jesse Forever deviates from typical romantic comedies in that it’s more about extricating oneself from love than falling into it.
It ends up being surprisingly touching, despite the fact that you start rooting for the cloyingly cute Celeste and Jesse to break up almost from the first frame. They’re not quite as insufferable as the couple portrayed by Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen in Sarah Polley’s June release, the relationship drama Take This Waltz, but close. Williams and Rogen engaged in baby talk and whispered weirdo avowals of their desire to eat each others’ eyeballs, whereas Celeste and Jesse debate menu choices together in silly German accents and regularly return to a joke about fellatio that is nearly as embarrassing to watch as it must have been to act out. They’re doing the accent bit at a restaurant when their best friends Beth (Ari Graynor) and Tucker (Eric Christian Olsen) announce they can’t stand to be around them anymore. The audience will sympathize with Beth and Tucker.
It’s not just the dopey accents that bug them; it’s the vagueness of Celeste and Jesse’s relationship status. Celeste is a trends analyst, author of a book called Shitegeist (heh) and a principal in a Los Angeles marketing firm whose clients include an obnoxious pop star (nicely played by Emma Roberts). Jesse, her sweetheart since college, is an artist who doesn’t have a job or a car of his own. After six years of marriage, Celeste has decided it’s over. “The father of my children has to have a car,” she says. She kicks him out, but not very far—just into his backyard studio. They still exchange “I love yous” at the end of the day and their divorce proceedings are entirely amicable and lackadaisical. He’d take her back in a heartbeat and she coasts along on that reassurance.
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Then unexpected outside forces push the breakup into high gear and cause Celeste’s perspective to shift. She sees Jesse starting fresh and she doesn’t like it. Without giving anything away, this represents a real comeuppance for the careerist woman, who until this crisis of confidence has had a tendency, as one character tells her, to approach everything with “contempt prior to investigation.” That’s borne out by Celeste’s early, cutting interactions with a new love interest, Paul (Chris Messina), a financial analyst who tries to pick her up at a yoga class. She analyzes him as if he were a trend and then dismisses the poor guy. It’s a wonder he ever speaks to her again.
Jones co-wrote the screenplay with Will McCormack, who plays a supporting role as everyone’s buddy and pot dealer, and it’s clear they, along with director Lee Toland Krieger, are trying to bring something fresh to romantic comedy. But the language and conventional trappings of the genre keep intruding. Even though Celeste’s gay co-worker Scott (Elijah Wood) jokes about fulfilling the supporting role duties of the sassy gay friend, he still feels like a wedged-in stereotype. There are the de rigueur moments: a wedding sequence and shots of our depressed heroine indulging in gross excesses of food and alcohol, along with sartorial sloth. Jones’ performance, generally compelling, shows strain in these rom-com-by-the-numbers scenes.
But Jones and McCormack have incorporated a lot of emotion that feels right and true. The heat between Celeste and Jesse is palpable, despite the cuteness. So is the sense of what it means to ride that breakup roller coaster, succumbing to and then, as time passes, eventually having to fight that heat. And I loved the moment when Celeste ends a stinging sidewalk argument with Jesse and walks right into one of those bozos inexplicably dressed in a rabbit suit—why does someone always try to make you smile when you least want to? Jones has written herself a role that reveals a range of pain and misery you might not expect from the cheery star of Parks and Recreation and feel-good movies like The Big Year. The screenplay displays compassion for both Jesse and Celeste, but ultimately, she’s the one who has to make the bigger attitude adjustment and accept blame. “How is being right about everything going for you?” Paul asks Celeste at one point. “I was never your equal,” Jesse tells her mournfully.
(READ: TIME’s review of The Big Year, featuring Rashida Jones)
His is not the first neutered male tale of 2012. In the endless but sensitive The Five-Year Engagement, aspiring chef Jason Segel’s devotion to Ph.D. candidate Emily Blunt cost him his career and self-respect. In Take This Waltz, Rogen’s trusting softie (another chef) lost Williams to the hot guy across the street. And in the saccharine The Vow, amnesia caused Rachel McAdams to (temporarily) dump both her puppy dog husband (Channing Tatum) and their shared lifestyle as struggling creative types. These neutered males did everything in their power to please their women, including assuming “wife”-like identities, but still couldn’t win. Sweet Jesse gets all of Celeste’s jokes and appreciates every inch of her, but given that his primary reason for being at the beginning of the movie is to be with her, he doesn’t stand a chance. The commonality between the films is the slavish devotion on the part of the husband/fiancée, the dampening effect that has on a woman’s ardor and the learning curve for the woman. The fast-thinking careerist Celeste in particular comes to appreciate the value of a nice guy, but the movie doesn’t punish the character as much as it shows her growing up. Given how realistic its portrayal of the ups and downs of breakups are, I wouldn’t put money on Celeste and Jesse Forever attracting the ardor of the male moviegoer—do you know any men who willingly linger in a breakup?—but I’d rather watch five divorce movies like this than one more featuring Katherine Heigl getting married.
READ: TIME’s review of The Five-Year-Engagement