Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Screenplay Review - Celeste and Jesse Forever (Guest Review)

Guest screenplay reviewer Amy Suto buys a box of chocolates in preparation for today's 2009 Black List script and recent Sundance purchase, Celeste and Jesse Forever.

Hey everybody. As I continue to close in on the book release and re-launch of the site, I once again turn to Scriptshadow readers to help me meet my review quota.  I figured it's Valentine's Day (ahem - did you get your significant other something nice yet??) so why not go with a Romantic Comedy! Today's entry is probably the most controversial entry on 2009's Black List. The script was so universally panned that the Black List conspiracy theorists were out in full force - and with good reason (I read it and thought it was awful).  But hey, it's the most love-focused day of the year. It's a day when you celebrate your significant other.  So maybe guest reviewer Amy Suto will let the mood whisk her away to a positive review....  Maybe. 

Genre: Romantic Comedy
Premise: (from IMDB) A divorcing couple tries to maintain their friendship while they both pursue other people.
About: (Carson breakdown) This film just debuted at Sundance.  "Parks and Rec" star Rashida Jones wrote the script with actor Will McCormack.  The movie stars herself and Saturday Night Alive alum, Andy Samberg (whose Pirates Of The Caribbean video is still one of the funniest things I've seen ev-er).  The film was directed by up-and-comer Lee Toland Krieger, who won the 2009 Emerging Filmmaker award for his film “The Vicious Kind” at the Denver International Film Festival (a movie that starred fellow "Parks and Rec" cast member Adam Scott).  
Writers: Rashida Jones and Will McCormack
Details: 109 pages – March 18th, 2009 (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

Rashida Jones from Parks and Rec and Andy Samberg from SNL are set to star in Celeste and Jesse Forever, written by Jones herself alongside Will McCormack. The star-studded cast also includes Emma Roberts and Elijah Wood. How could this project that's drawn so much attention not be exciting?

The opening montage is set to Sunny Levine's sentimental (and kind of offbeat) “Love Rhino.” We see Celeste and Jesse grow up as the penultimate “will they won't they?” best-friends-with-sexual-tension cliché we all know so well. Through this montage we learn that long time best friends Celeste and Jesse finally get married in a heartfelt montage and everything is hunky dory... or is it?

Skip to present day, where Celeste and Jesse are singing along to said song. We learn that she's a professionally-minded trend forecaster, and he's a perpetual man-child who cares more about having fun then pursuing a career, and he sort of annoys Celeste because she can't change him to be more like her.

Later, Celeste and Jesse decide to go on a double date with Beth and Tucker, two friends from college who are engaged, when... SURPRISE! We learn that a few months back Celeste and Jesse decided to break off their marriage, yet they still hang out every day and participate in their quirky inside jokes as if nothing ever happened.

But now, Celeste begins to wonder if spending so much time with her ex (who is living out of her guest house because he's broke) is a good idea. What healthy human being tries to stay friends with their divorced spouse? There's gotta be some resentment there.

Skillz, Jesse's pot-selling fellow man-boy dispenses advice (and a gratuitous amount of drugs) throughout the story, although his role in actually moving the story forward is nonexistent. He convinces Jesse to ask the Yogurt Shop Girl out on a date and he does. She talks about herself, he is bored, and so are we. Once again, this encounter appears to have no lasting significance on the story.

Jesse then realizes that an old flame of his is pregnant with his kid, and they fall in love. This woman – Veronica – is only described as happy, elegant, and likeable. Naturally, Celeste gets jealous, and goes out and dates random men and complains to everyone about how her ex is moving on and she isn't.

The rest of the movie is basically Celeste in a downward spiral, being snarky and cynical and laughing at gay sex jokes and kind of helping a celebrity re-do her image by telling her off.

The end of the movie fizzles out without any major change in the characters or an attempt at a theme, and (SPOILER ALERT!) Celeste and Jesse will not be together forever.

Let's bring this back to Carson's age-old wisdom of utilizing your GSU-- goals, stakes, and urgency. This script had none of the above. In fact... it had very little plot or direction at all, and progressed like a series of meaningless vignettes.

But, in all seriousness, what is Celeste's goal? To get back together with Jesse? No, she outright tells him that the two of them aren't getting back together after a session of drunken sex. Is her goal to move on? Not really, because she blows off all the guys she meets.

From the logline, it appears to be that Celeste's goal of sorts is to remain friends with her ex. But... they're already best friends at the beginning of the movie, and they stay friends the entire time. Jesse actually disappears for most of the discernible Act 2, but it seems that they can't stay mad at each other for too long.

As for stakes, it's not like achieving her goal will make her happy; whenever a character makes it her goal not to change, the story is most often self-defeating. The story starts and ends with the characters still friends, but it leaves the reader unsatisfied because nothing has happened. Nobody has learned anything because things are, in essence, the same.

What about urgency? She has a cushy job, and really isn't in danger of losing it. There's no ticking time bomb or attempt at pacing. Her and her new love interest Paul have a good thing going, even with his judgmental attitude towards her job at first and his strange yoga sayings (which actually are the highlight of the movie.) There's no conflict there.

This script doesn't work because Celeste is a passive main character – perhaps the single deadliest sin any screenwriter can commit. Things happen to her and she merely reacts. She reacts to Jesse's news that he's impregnated a girl he barely knows by complaining to other people about him, and by telling him off. But does she actively try and change his mind? No. Does she actively pursue him? No. She does drugs and drinks herself into a whiny stupor so she won't have to make any decisions. Celeste spends most of the movie telling people off and not much time actually doing anything.

The characters fall flat on the page. Scott, her boss, is described as “gay but very straight,” but is really just a bland excuse for a character who spouts unfunny jokes. Beth, the best friend, has no definable traits other than she is described as “energetic”, but she essentially only serves as a sounding board for Celeste's complaints. So what? These characters' vaguely interesting quirks cannot carry the story.

The part of the script I did like was Jesse and Celeste's relationship prior to realizing they are divorced. Their quirky memories, ridiculous inside jokes, and fake German accents all were the highlight of the script. It reminded me a little of Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, but without the charm. If these characters had a different goal – to get back together, a la It's Complicated with Meryl Streep and Adam Baldwin – then the story could have meant something, perhaps exploring the thread of what it takes to mend a broken relationship. But just “staying friends” without learning something along the way? That's not a goal that can carry a movie.

By divorcing the characters and not allowing them to get them back together or mend their broken relationship, the audience can't really root for them. In fact, I liked Jesse and Celeste's other love interests. Paul's deadpan hipster humor and Veronica's niceness seemed more appealing than Jesse and Celeste getting back together or even staying friends. We also never really know why they divorced in the first place. If they're such good friends, why couldn't they make it work? I smell movie logic.

Basically, this script can be boiled down to: Boy and girl break up. Jealousy on both ends. They date other people. It works out after awhile. Cue bittersweet ending and... roll credits. I was rooting for this script to be... something. Maybe an earnest depiction of the hurt feelings left in the wake of divorce. Maybe some conflict-charged scenes between Jesse's new girl and Celeste (which did not arrive). But by page 50 I was banging my head against the wall and begging for the script to be over.

Now, this is a draft from 2009, so we can still hope that some substantial changes have been made to the script. I'm rooting for these guys! It just goes to show that screenwriting is a tough craft to master, even for those working in other areas of the industry.

[x] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

Your characters need to be actively working to achieve some sort of victory (goal), with a looming fear of failure (stakes), while some sort of time-sensitive motivator fuels the story's fire (urgency). Otherwise, you end up with some disconnected scenes that don't tell any story at all.

Carson touts character development on here a lot, but it bears repeating – especially in this case. All of the minor characters could have benefited from actually having definable traits and goals of their own. Memorable characters are everything in a romantic comedy, and without them your story will not even last as long in the minds of the audience as Celeste and Jesse's relationship did. Forever, indeed.