Celeste and Jesse Forever (2012)
★ / ★★★★
A dinner with two friends who are about to get married (Ari Graynor, Eric Christian Olsen) proves unpleasant when one of them speaks up about how awkward it is that although Celeste (Rashida Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg) have been separated for six months and in the process of getting a divorce, they continue to hang out with each other all the time as if they were still a couple. Celeste and Jesse have been best friends since they were young and so it is unimaginable for them to let a romantic separation get in the way of their friendship. However, when a woman named Veronica (Rebecca Dayan), a random hook-up Jesse has had somewhat recently, enters the equation, the dynamic duo are forced to reevaluate what is left in their relationship.
“Celeste and Jesse Forever,” based on the screenplay by Rashida Jones and Will McCormack, has a wonderful premise and the title characters share a believable camaraderie. Unfortunately, its uniqueness is drained by the chugging machinery of the plot, resting on typical conflicts and questions such as whether or not Jesse and Celeste will eventually end up in each other’s arms. What could have been an exploration of a complex relationship rooted on a friendship that blossomed into a romance and its eventual wilting turns into a tired storyline of a sitcom prior to its halfway point.
One of the ways to allow the material to stand out is to make the supporting characters interesting. Celeste and Jesse start seeing other people eventually, but the people they encounter are caricatures. Some examples include Veronica being exotic and mysterious, Rupert (Rafi Gavron) being very good-looking but too young, and Paul (Chris Messina) being too eager and way into himself. They are not boring, but since the supporting characters lack depth, most of the time it is difficult to be convinced that there is a big threat who may permanently sever the ties between the former couple.
The story feels one-sided. We see a whole lot of Celeste and how hard it is for her to try and move on but what about Jesse? He may be a man—someone who is not especially tough—but he is not without feelings or conflicting thoughts about what they are going through. When we do see him, he shares the frame with Celeste consistently. We cannot help but feel more for the latter since we understand her better. It is a shame that the material fails to communicate that a break-up, in this case, hurts both people.
The film is jolted from its slumber when Jesse and Celeste fight. When they get so angry and frustrated to the point where they remove the filter and tell each other about what they really think and what destroyed their marriage, then the material has a semblance of an identity. We get to realize and appreciate how young they really are. Despite their age, there is a sadness in how tired and restless they look. We root for them to get out of the dumps even though it starts to feel like it is a real possibility that the two can never rekindle what they had lost. Sometimes that’s just the way it is.
Directed by Lee Toland Krieger, “Celeste and Jesse Forever” gained some of my affection but for a fascinating premise, it feels too safe in execution and as a whole. There are some good bits like the squirm-worthy but hilarious moments whenever Jesse and Celeste get anywhere near objects that resemble a phallus. At least the fixation feels true to their relationship. The characters deserve to have a lot more fun—and true—moments like that.
What’s Your Number? (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
After being fired from her job by a boss who likes to sniff his fingers (Joel McHale), Ally (Anna Faris) stumbles upon an article on “Marie Claire” about women and their sex lives. It claims that the average number of men women have sex with in their lifetime is about 10.5. Ally has been sexually intimate with nineteen. That scares her and right then she decides to make a change: she will remain celibate until she finds “the right man.” In her mind, one of the nineteen had to have been Mr. Right.
Inspired by “20 Times a Lady,” Karyn Bosnak’s novel, the film, based on a screenplay by Gabrielle Allan and Jennifer Crittenden, is carried entirely by Faris’ wide-eyed charm. Ally’s joie de vivre is contagious. When something funny happens, she laughs loudest and longest. When something sad happens, she tries to make the most out of it. She does not necessarily make smart decisions, especially for a relatively successful city girl, but I wanted to see her find happiness because, at least in my eyes, people who radiate so much positivity deserve it.
The picture is forty-five minutes of relatively entertaining material stretched into over a hundred. At times it is most frustrating because it appears content with underachievement. For instance, Daisy (Ari Graynor) is underused as Ally’s sister and a bride-to-be. Ally makes a speech during her sister’s wedding. The toast’s theme is about what being a big sister means to Ally. It would have had emotional resonance if we had a chance to observe their relationship go through ups and downs. Instead, whenever the two women are in front of us, they are always so perky and happy—which does not ring true.
It fails to prove to us why Daisy will allow her older sister to contact former flames. There is a difference between being supportive and being practical. What if the guys are bitter and angry toward Ally? Is safety not a concern? Speaking of the ex-boyfriends (Chris Pratt, Zachary Quinto, Martin Freeman, Andy Samberg, among others), would it have been too much to ask if they were more… less weird? The quirks, though played for obvious laughs, are more distracting than amusing. I was not at all convinced that a woman of Ally’s caliber, even though she has moments of desperation, would put out with a guy who has a fixation for performing magic tricks—even in bed. It feels too much like a sitcom.
If the screenplay had allowed Ally to spend more time with her ex-lovers and we are able to point to at least one reason why they were together in the first place, there might have been tension and complexity in the sudden (forced) reconnections. Most of the time, when we unexpectedly bump into our ex-es in a cafe, a restaurant, or a movie theater, it is not always awkward or strange. Not everything has to be dramatic: sometimes we simply realize that the feelings are still there and wonder if they feel the same.
What the film lacks is emotional range with respect to the interactions. Only one is right on point: Ally meeting up with Tom (Anthony Mackie), an aspiring politician. Just as quickly, it moves on to others like Colin (Chris Evans), Ally’s neighbor from across the hall who seems to bed a different woman every other night. We can anticipate from a mile away that they are going to end up liking each other. Worse, there is no originality in their flirtations.
Directed by Mark Mylod, I was annoyed with the screenwriters because they chose not to make Ally a sharp character by allowing her to face difficult, life-changing decisions. They do not allow her to act like a real person either. What would it take for her to get so angry, she stops being cotton candy lovable?
For a Good Time, Call… (2012)
★★ / ★★★★
Assigned on business to Rome for the summer, Charlie (James Wolk) thinks that this period is a great time for him and his girlfriend, Lauren (Lauren Miller), to “evaluate” their relationship. This leaves Lauren homeless so she turns to her best gay friend, Jesse (Justin Long), for help. He has an idea. Since Katie (Ari Graynor) cannot afford to pay rent (and only has four days to pay back rent before she gets evicted), he suggests that the two girls–even if they do not get along–move in together. Failing to make ends meet, the new roommates start a private business: a phone sex line.
Written by Lauren Miller and Katie Anne Naylon, “For a Good Time, Call…” makes a solid extended pilot of a television sitcom. There are colorful characters, the jokes are in the script, and some of the punchlines work. But as a full-length feature film, it is considerably less effective because although dramatic elements are injected into the script to avoid being one-note, the conflicts lack a certain depth to make the eventual evolution of the characters convincing.
The picture is at its best when the two contrasting personalities of its protagonists are front and center. Lauren is boring but smart; Katie is exciting but limited. We believe their partnership because they complete each other in terms of running a successful business venture. Miller plays Lauren with a relatable self-doubt given that, essentially, she had just been dumped and her career prospects is dimming. Meanwhile, Graynor plays Katie as a fabulous ball of pink energy so willing to do or say anything, we cannot help but suspect she might be hiding something underneath all of that commotion.
And yet for a movie about sex operators, it seems quite tame. While it is not the kind of movie one would necessarily play full blast on surround sound, the scope of the content is limited to perhaps late teens or early twenty-somethings. The crudest it gets is that we see a pair of sex toys on a living room table. Also, although there is talk about economic struggle and landing the right job in order to get a career going, these potentially interesting and identifiable elements are consistently put in the back burner. The story might have been more believable if Katie and Lauren are actually seen struggling to survive in the city instead of just looking sad or whining.
Most disappointing is the screenplay not taking advantage of the roles of Lauren’s well-to-do parents. We know they are going to find out about their daughter’s new job eventually but it takes too long to get to that point. It would have been a nice surprise if they found out about it quite early on. Obviously, they will be disappointed because what kind of parents would want their child to run a phone sex line. Coupled with alterations in the script in order to allow them to say more, they could have been a symbol of American society judging professions that are considered sleazy or wrong. Then the film would not feel like a sitcom.
In reality, people who are poor and/or living with debt do whatever has to be done just for them and their families to survive the next day. Although it is a comedy, “For a Good Time, Call…” strips away so much of the reality to make the subject matter digestible that it ends up as a sort-of fantasy. I still can’t deny, however, that it was able to make me laugh from time to time.
Sitter, The (2011)
★ / ★★★★
Noah (Jonah Hill), a college dropout with nothing much to do except hang out, decided to babysit the three children of his mom’s friend (Erin Daniels) because he figured his mom (Jessica Hecht) could use a fun night out. Who knows? Being a single parent, she might even meet a man who could make her happy. The three youngsters, Slater (Max Records), Blithe (Landry Bender), and Rodrigo (Kevin Hernandez) were, to say the least, a handful of troublemakers. It didn’t help that Noah was far from a responsible adult, accepting to pick up cocaine for his girlfriend (Ari Graynor) in exchange for sex in the middle of his babysitting. Written by Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka, as “The Sitter” unfolded, the gnawing question of who it was aimed for could no longer be ignored. Even though it contained kids, it certainly wasn’t for children given their mean-spirited natures, especially Rodrigo’s predilection for putting homemade bombs in public restrooms. And yet it wasn’t for adults either. At least not those who preferred their comedy distilled of sentimentality. The screenplay couldn’t help but make Noah into a brother figure for the kids, so unconvincing that in select scenes where the mood was supposed to be serious, like when Noah confronted Slater of the young teen’s homosexuality and self-hatred, though a great topic of conversation in a mainstream lens, I was relatively unmoved because I couldn’t see past the hokum. Since the sensitive moments didn’t feel earned, I was offended that the film so willingly crossed the line. I wish that the writers acknowledged the reality that some people, even babysitters, are just not good with kids. They certainly wouldn’t change their deeply-rooted tendencies overnight. However, the picture did have one very funny scene that took place in a store. Blithe had a bodily accident in the car so Noah had to take her underwear shopping because she had no change of clothes. Observing from a couple of feet away, a Kid City employee (Alysia Joy Powell) had mistakenly believed that Noah was a pedophile and Noah’s nervous explanation about what he was doing in the little girls’ underwear section didn’t help the situation. Hill and Powell mirrored each other’s energy so strongly, their exchange had crackle and pop. I wish other confrontations between Noah and another character were just as effective. In contrast, the scenes between Noah and Karl (Sam Rockwell), a drug dealer, were so lackadaisical and nonsensical. At times it was downright offensive. Karl was supposed to be gay. His sexuality was strictly utilized as a source of comedy. If the drug dealer had been straight, he’d just be another unfunny, incompetent thug. Would it have been too much to ask for the writers to make their villain a little bit more interesting without relying solely on the character’s sexual orientation? To me, mean-spirited gay jokes are just as offensive as gay jokes that insidiously try to pass as progressive thinking. “The Sitter,” directed by David Gordon Green, needed a writing overhaul in order to make room for adventurous and funny moments that have range. There was no sense of adventure here, just a series of poorly executed sketches.