By Jennifer Vineyard
When Celeste, as played by Rashida Jones in “Celeste and Jesse Forever,” notices things, she’s very particular. A guy she’s just met hits on her at a yoga class, and with a glance, she’s able to deliver this high-powered assessment: “You traded in your Porsche for an Audi because the economy’s still tanking, and you’re afraid you’ll lose your job. You just bought a Droid cell phone because you think it makes you seem more business-oriented instead of an iPhone, which you think is for teenage girls. You go to yoga because you went to a sub-Ivy League school, and you spent the last ten years working long hours and drinking all weekend and you thought it was time to do something spiritual.” Chris Messina, the guy who’s just failed at asking her out, is dumbfounded, because she was right. And as Holly Hunter told us in “Broadcast News,”‘ it’s awful to always believe you know better, to always be right.
Celeste belongs in the same league as Hunter’s classic Jane Craig character as well as Meg Ryan’s Sally Albright from “When Harry Met Sally… “– she’s a complex, difficult, articulate character whose primary relationship is with her male best friend. Jones, who also co-wrote “Celeste and Jesse” with her writing partner Will McCormack, told IFC that they were her role models.
“We watched ‘When Harry Met Sally…’ so many times, ad nauseum, while writing,” Jones said. “And ‘Annie Hall,’ ‘Husbands and Wives,’ and ‘Broadcast News,’ because they are perfect. I just watched ‘Broadcast News’ again two days ago. The performances are perfect. I was so surprised and elated by Holly Hunter’s performance, which still feels so fresh. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before.”
The way Sally orders food in a restaurant or Jane gives directions to a D.C. cabbie — even if in real life, those directions make no sense — speak volumes about their characters. “They feel empowered by their sense of the world,” Jones said. “They created an identity based on this somewhat flawed perception of what’s right, what’s wrong, and you can see it very clearly, very quickly, by someone ordering a sandwich, and how it works for them. They are so particular.”
It’s a trait that someone could hate — call it high-maintenance — or something that could become lovable, as Harry discovers with Sally’s tendency to get everything “on the side.” Both characters, by the way, are based on real-life counterparts — CBS news producer Susan Zirinsky for Jane Craig, and the late writer/director Nora Ephron for Sally Albright. Jones, who was “thrilled” and “excited” to meet Zirinsky at the White House Correspondents Dinner, said that’s what helps make both characters relatable. “That reads,” she said. “Those are real people, and the characters feel real, you know?”
So Jones wanted to take elements of her own character and dating life, and add them to that model, to pay homage to Jane and Sally, “and hopefully add something to it,” she explained. “In our story, as much as that way of being has made Celeste’s life successful, it doesn’t mean she can control everything. And when life happens to her, she’s forced to revaluate how she perceives the world, you know? It all blends together, because she’s making snap judgments about somebody at work, and she’s wrong about it, and she learns from it.”
Jones said that it’s something she battles, too — “my own sense of right, and how myopic that can make me at times” — because it was a survival tool that worked for her and helped her become successful, but it also stands in her way. “I’ve spent enough time in therapy to know that!” she laughed. “This movie was an exorcism of a certain kind of flaw that I don’t like about myself, because I can be very black and white, and make decisions about things, and then once I’ve decided, I’m decided, and it was very hard to change my mind. I don’t really think that way anymore. Getting older is about realizing that you’re never going to know what it’s about, and you have to kind of accept that, you know?”
In Celeste’s situation, she was married to her best friend Jesse (played by Andy Samberg), and when the movie starts, the couple are separated and getting a divorce — yet still hang out all the time together. Unlike traditional romantic comedies, or even romantic dramedies, this one is about learning to let go of romantic fantasies about happily ever after. “I think part of being an adult is leaving the fairytale behind,” Jones said. “I think rom-coms have reflected that over the ages. We kind of got stuck in a box in the ’90s and ‘2000s, but we’re coming out of it again. We’re telling new stories. Judd Apatow is telling romantic stories from the slacker guy’s point of view. And now we have slacker girls, and all these indie comedies like ‘(500) Days of Summer’ where it’s about loving somebody and changing their life because you love them instead.”
Two other post rom-coms this summer, “Lola Versus” and “Take This Waltz,” also explored the similar terrain of complex women trying to find themselves after the breakup, with varying results. “It’s weird,” Jones said. “How does something end up in the zeitgeist? It’s a perfect storm of the people who do it and the people who want it. I hope it’s not just a passing trend, because women have been complex and interesting and dynamic and smart forever, and they will continue to be.”