Sundance Pick: Celeste and Jesse Forever

Writing a good romantic comedy is tough.

Writing a good divorce comedy is tougher.

So the fact that Rashida Jones nailed both her performance and her part of the screenplay entire movie is something very special.

Celeste and Jesse Forever follows a long-term couple in the midst of a breakup. Having been best friends for the past twenty years, Celeste (Rashida Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg) find themselves divorcing–in spite of their continued chemistry. Celeste, a trends analyst and pop-culture commentator, is the epitome of a responsible business woman. Jesse is an unemployed artist, who spends more time scheming on surfing than actively planning out his life. They bond through some strange shared loves (like masturbating lip glosses, baby corn, and other things that look like tiny penises) but Celeste initiates the divorce since Jesse has failed to grow up.

However, as the proceedings continue, and they actually start experiencing life outside of their bond, both Celeste and Jesse begin to question their initial perceptions of their marriage. The conversations between Jesse and Celeste flow easily, in that goofy style of intimate speech that’s really hard to capture on film. The film shines when it uses Celeste’s job as an endless source of pop culture commentary, from her book Shitgeist to working with manufactured pop princess Riley Banks. There’s even a cameo from internet darling Sarah Haskins. The film is smart and funny – unfortunately, like most comedies with a relationship at the core, it fails the Bechdel Test.

The Hollywood Reporter interviewed Jones about the writing process:

THR: How much is the film autobiographical for the two of you?

Jones: It’s definitely a pastiche for both of us. We talk all the time about relationships and love and what it means and how it changes — what it means to grow up and how that affects the way you love people. We’re kind of obsessed with it! The film is for sure emblematic of a couple relationships I’ve had; some of them romantic and some of them friendships. It definitely reflects my relationship with Will and other guy friends I’ve had from the time I was 15. Definitely a mashup all around.

THR: Relationships that don’t work out offer up a lot of great material to work with as a writer, don’t they?

Jones: Definitely! There’s no better way to process pain than to write. I’ve not had that experience with acting. I mean, you can momentarily get these glimpses of real pain, but it’s nice to really, really process it and get into it and figure out why it hurts so bad; be really honest about it without having it be you talking to the person you want to talk to.

Honesty is a hallmark of the film–while lots of scenes (and Elijah Wood’s entire character) are pushed over the top for comedic effect, the characters get emotionally naked as the divorce proceedings continue. Samberg does a wonderful job in exploring the vulnerability involved with divorce, but Jones manages to capture the essence of a woman without forcing her into stereotype. Celeste isn’t a bitchy, perpetually single career woman–she has her moments, but they don’t define her. The movie never undermines her character to teach her a lesson, and it doesn’t rely on the Hollywood idea of a happy ending to drive the plot home. It isn’t a coming-of-age film–it’s more about surviving adulthood.

From a Racialicious standpoint, I went into the film with no racial expectations. From the trailer, Jones’ character Celeste is in a majority white world, and that’s basically what you get. However, there are racial references that were puzzling. Celeste attends a Halloween party with a white hefty bag secured around her midsection. When people ask, she explains she’s going as “white trash.” But later, after her date plays something like “Zuleisha” in scrabble, she crows “That’s not a word, that’s like my hootchie cousin’s name!” Make of that what you will, readers.

Ultimately, the movie is enjoyable. It isn’t quite first-date fodder due to the subject explored, but would be fun in most other scenarios. And if you want to see it, you’re in luck–the movie is being distributed by Sony, and will hit theaters in summer 2012.

  • Mickey

    I never saw “Bridesmaids”, but I do know that Maya played Chris Rock’s wife in “Grown Ups” and she had a black mother in the film along with kids. And race wasn’t mentioned in “Idiocracy”, but it is fair to say that her character was coded as black for that film as well. So my belief is that Maya flip-flops, so to speak, when it comes to roles where race may or may not be a factor in the character that she plays.

  • Eva

    I do think the discussion on casting/color/privilege is interesting.   For example, would an actress who has brown skin be up for the same parts as Rashida, Jennifer Beals,  Mya Rudolph or Paula Patton?  Even if said actress were the same age and body type?  How much does skin color influence who gets to be the romantic partner? 

    In the second season of Boardwalk Empire, Chalky White’s wife is a fair skinned black woman and skin color does become an issue in one scene.  In that case it made sense that his wife was fair skinned but my question is, if the skin color of a character isn’t essential to the plot of the story, then why is it that fairer skinned actresses seem to get cast as the “love interest?”  I am in my 50′s and I have been noticing that a lot lately. 

  • Eva

    Another magazine that mentioned Beal’s background was US and that was in either 1983 or 1984.  Probably 1983 because that’s when Flashdance was out. 

  • Anonymous

    Well, I’m going to guess that maybe you’re a bit older than me b/c I would not have been reading People back when Flashdance came out.  I had some oddly precocious reading habits but entertainment magazines were not part of it so all of my childhood entertainment news came from Jet and Ebony.  

    I think all of the credits you mentioned though were more recent though…Like to Me and the L Word are from the last 5-7 years…

  • Anonymous

    But how long ago was that?  In the 80′s or more recently.  I’d say her background is definitely more “out” than it was at one point.

    • Mickey

      “A House Divided”  came out in 2000. “The Feast of All Saints” was released in 2001.

  • http://racerelations.about.com/ Nadra

    Not everyone is very close to the relatives they have in their bridal parties. Many people have their sister, cousin, etc., there just out of duty. I was a bridesmaid in a cousin’s wedding, for example, but I am certainly not best friends with her. 

  • jvansteppes

    I haven’t seen the movie but that Zuleisha bit rings alarm bells for me. So many white people take a kind of perverse pleasure in ridiculing alledgedly ‘hoochie’ names like Lafawnda or Shaniqua because it gives them a chance to mock black women while pretending that’s not what they’re doing.

    • Anonymous

       Yep it’s that good “old” new fashioned Hipster Racism.

      • Anonymous

        I often wonder if white people are confused by the her own very black name…

        • Anonymous

           LOL  Right?!  I doubt there are many white women named “Rashida” but maybe they figure her parents were hippies and wanted to be different by giving her an Arabic name.

  • Anonymous

    I’ve pretty much stopped expecting Rashida Jones to have any POC-racialized identity in any of the roles she plays.  She’s definitely building a name for herself in these predominantly white spaces, but it always feels a little false like there’s this underlying assumption that she might not be “white white” but let’s not talk about it and you should just think she’s extra tan.  It’s funny because I swear I read an interview she did some years ago where she was talking about her black/mixed heritage and people being surprised that she: 1) had it and 2) did indeed identify with it.  But  I think regardless of how she may personally feel about her identity, some part of her must be okay with trading on that ambiguity professionally because she keeps taking, or in the case of this film creating,  roles where her character is perceived as white and her love interests are white. 

    • Mickey

      I agree with you. She seems to play racially unspecified characters, but it is usually in a predominately white setting.  However, I can think of one instance where she definitely played a POC. In the TV show “Boston Public”, her character is black/white (black father, white mother) and she mentions this when the principal discovers that he has a biracial son who was the result of a one-night stand he had with a black woman. On the show “The Office” someone asks her if her father is in the military because she “looks exotic.” This was done for comedic reasons, but I think also to shed light on her racial background.

      • Anonymous

        I’m pretty sure Michael Scott asked that b/c it is the kind of ignorant, tone-deaf thing he’d say, and I agree that it was probably a shout-out to something that I’m sure she gets a lot.  

        Her skin stands out as “non-white” when she is next to most white people, and yet she has light eyes and hair.

        One thing that I think colors her experience is the fact that she can physically pass in a way that her only whole sibling, Kidada, cannot. 

        Her race/ethnicity is usually not mentioned or for example in the Office she seemed vaguely white ethnic b/c of the last name given to her character, and yes, she is always fully immersed in a white world with white friends and white love interests.  

        Interesting to hear about Boston Public, another show I have never seen and the fact that in that case, her character shared her own background.  But I’d ask, after that mention, did it ever come up again?  

      • Anonymous

         I totally forgot she was on Boston Public.  That’s definitely a stand out character from her larger body of work, especially because her characters have become more non-descript as time goes on. 

    • morerobtos

      I found this interview she did with her sister about growing up biracial – it’s just a really interesting interview. I think she is aware that she has a lot of privilege in the kinds of roles she can take, at least.

      • Anonymous

         Do you have a link?  I wonder if it’s the same interview I was referencing.  :)

        Rashida and her sister Kidada are definitely a great example of how skin/feature privilege operate, even within the same family.  It’s good that she has some awareness of that privilege, but it makes you wonder (like @openid-111277:disqus mentioned) why she’s so willing to “pass.”  I get that it’s hard to find work as an actor, especially if you’re an Actor of Color, but should you feel obligated to struggle or fight harder with the rest of us when it’s so easy for you to leave it behind??

        p.s. @racialicious:disqus LaToya….Wasn’t there a post here last year about acting and skin privilege?  Maybe I’m getting my blogs mixed up.

    • http://commentarybyvalentina.wordpress.com/ Val

       ”…some part of her must be okay with trading on that ambiguity
      professionally because she keeps taking, or in the case of this film
      creating,  roles where her character is perceived as white..”

      If that’s the case then I wonder why. I’d love to see an interview with Rashida, Maya and Jennifer Beals on this subject.

  • Anonymous

    Hmm. I don’t know of anywhere she’s specifically commented on what characters she plays racially. And this is an interesting situation – she co-conceived the project, wrote it, and acted in it. I think if the racial makeup of the characters is something she felt strongly about, she would have had enough influence to get it changed. But her body of work doesn’t reveal much about her racial politics.

    It was kind of the same situation with Maya Rudolph in Bridesmaids. I try to make sure I support things that break out of the status quo, and I was really not sitting well with the whole all white bridal party (though quite a few people here tried to convince me it was normal.) I’m also not keen on that style of comedy, so I skipped it.

    Jones, I like a bit more, but I have to admit I am basing that less on her actual roles and more on her comic. So I went in expecting that if she’s setting it in a predominantly white world, she is supposed to be read as white. But maybe not. That’s why I was confused at the white trash/zuleisha thing, which I suppose is her nodding to all of her heritage, but at the same time feels strange against this predominantly white and affluent environment.

    Hopefully, someone asks her about it directly.

    • http://racerelations.about.com/ Nadra

      I so agree with you about “Bridesmaids,” especially considering that many women have relatives in their bridal parties. Couldn’t Maya Rudolph have had a sister or cousin of color be in the party as well? In “Away We Go,” for example, Carmen Ejogo was cast as her sister.

      • Anonymous

        Well, in all fairness though, Maya Rudolph had a black father in Bridesmaids.  So while I found it odd that she had no black relatives in her bridal party, she seems to acknowledge  or insert her background into roles where it could easily be left out and she could be portrayed as vaguely ethnic but still more or less white.  

        • Eva

          Regarding Bridesmaids.  I didn’t think it was unusual that she didn’t have any black relatives in her bridal party.  Both of my parents are black and yet, if I had gotten married 20 years ago, there would have been no black female relatives who could have been in the wedding as both of my parents were only children. 

          • Anonymous

            But did you have no black FRIENDS either?  It’s interesting to contemplate how you’d have no black friends, biracial or not.

             Most of the weddings I’ve been to involved way more if not all friends in the bridal party as opposed to family, precisely for the reasons you mentioned…either no cousins, no siblings, or no one who was the right age (or perhaps close enough despite the blood ties).  

          • k.eli

             As someone who grew up and still lives in a predominately white area, it’s not very hard for me to understand Eva not having any black friends at that time in her life. Unfortunately, black people are pretty hard to come by in my neck of the woods – of the nearly 200 people who graduated with honors at my high school, a whopping 4 of us were black (and I never had more than 1 class with 2 of them). For me, it wasn’t an issue of not wanting to be friends with other black people, I just rarely ever saw them.

          • Anonymous

            I spent 13 years as the only black girl in my private school class, lived in a neighborhood that had only a few black families, and was raised in a Christian denomination that also has few black members.

            I also went to an Ivy League school and have spent my career in fields that don’t involve many black people (tech, engineering, etc).  I live in an area that has few black people, and the few of us who are present in my current industry have more or less found each other.  

            My point is that the lack of black faces that exist in the environments that I didn’t and don’tcontrol leads me to make black friends when I can.

            And while not everyone bothers, it’s not as if it is impossible, so my incredulity is not baseless.  

            Like it or not, some black people do use a lot of excuses why they are somehow not able to be friends with other black people, but since there is so much diversity in our community at a certain point it does kind of become a choice to engage or not.

          • BlackLizLemon

            As someone with roots in Milwaukee (where Bridesmaids took place), I can honestly say it’s one of the most segregated cities in the country.  Several of my cousins were often the “only” in many school and social settings, so I wasn’t surprised that Maya’s character didn’t have black folks in the bridal party.  

    • http://commentarybyvalentina.wordpress.com/ Val

       ”I think if the racial makeup of the characters is something she felt
      strongly about, she would have had enough influence to get it changed.”

      I agree. Jennifer Beals manages to acknowledge her African American-ness in some of her work. She did on The L Word and again on her last series Chicago Code. So yeah I think if Rashida, and Maya, wanted to they could as well. Makes me wonder if they just don’t want to make waves.

      • Anonymous

        Jennifer Beals didn’t start out acknowledging that though.  When she first emerged in the 80′s with Flashdance and some other rather dreadful movies, she was definitely being cast as more or less or at least unspecified, and with her light skin and only slightly wavy hair, that is how she is likely viewed.   
        So I was too young to really pay attention to Beals (or see her movies)  when she first emerged, but recall reading an article that mentioned her parents (black restauranteur dad in Chicago).  I think that in the mainstream media, the most interesting part of her background was her education, b/c she is a Yale alumna.  No matter talked about her having a black father EVER.  It’s funny how now actresses who can “pass” are more or less allowed to today whereas at one point, being black, no matter how “white-looking” you might be still meant that you had to be in “Negro” movies.  So this happened to people like Fredi Washington who lost out on roles that went to I believe Ava Gardner in one case (in blackface no less), and other actresses in other cases.  Any time there was a “tragic mulatto” role, it went to a white actress.    

        So there has definitely been an evolution in terms of her career, but perhaps the way it cooled after some major duds made her reconsider things, so the first thing I recall seeing her in that used her background and phenotype was “Devil in the Blue Dress” and I distinctly recall knowing precisely where that movie was going b/c I knew her background whereas I know people that didn’t (usually non-black people) were totally shocked by the conclusion of things.  

        I honestly can’t say the other things I’ve seen Beals in (episode of Law and Order) make reference to her background b/c she is usually paired with white men still-oh, but I just remembered that she was on the L Word and I’ve never seen that, so my view/knowledge of her recent career only gives me examples of her more or less having the same kind of career as Rashida Jones.  

        • jvansteppes

          Her background in the L Word was acknowledged; Pam Grier was cast as her half sister and her father was played by Ossie Davis in one of his last roles. There was a lot of cringeworthy race politics on that show (along with terrible storylines about trans people and even queer women themselves) and many pointed out that Beals’ character rarely acknowledged her racialized experience or how it would have affected her identity as a lesbian.