This review previously appeared as part of Hollywood.com's coverage of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.
After adorable but limiting roles in The Office I Love You Man Our Idiot Brother and her biggest part to date Parks and Recreation actress Rashida Jones nabs her meatiest part to date courtesy of her own script.
Celeste and Jesse Forever the brainchild of Jones and writing partner Will McCormick is a romantic comedy that feels perfectly comfortable treading into honest poignant relationship moments. It's obvious Jones co-wrote the movie every beat tailor made to draw out her best qualities. Celeste (Jones) and Jesse (Saturday Night Live's Andy Samberg) are longtime friends a perfect pair who eventually tie the knot and live happily for six years… until their relationship ends in divorce. But even with their impending separation the two can't help but remain best buds. Their friends are critical of the continued companionship but the pair work together to get back in the dating game. The journey forces the former couple to confront the truths and regrets both have harbored since first meeting.
Celeste and Jesse skips the big gags and sappy confessions in favor of grounding its characters in honest (and often uneasy) scenarios. Jones' and McCormick's script captures the kookiness ingrained in long lasting friendships from inside jokes (Celeste and Jesse routinely play a game where they perform sex acts with random objects) to the strange customs of Los Angelenos. Quirk isn't easy to pull off but director Lee Toland Krieger keeps the action intimate and restrained allowing Jones Samberg and the handful of exceptional supporting actors (including Erik Christian Olsen Ari Graynor Elijah Wood and Emma Roberts) to riff and joke without ever going broad.
If the movie was simply a string of hushed comedic sketches Celeste and Jesse Forever would fall into the familiar territory of meandering mumblecore but Jones and Samberg elevate the material with a surprising knack for the dramatic. In one of the film's more emotionally frank moments Jesse delvers a confession that solidifies the couple's dissipating relationship. The normally-goofball Samberg reels it back allowing quiet expression take the stage. The film may not land every intentionally heavy moment with perfect grace but watching two actors play against their established personas gives Celeste and Jesse extra (and exciting) punch.
Celeste and Jesse Forever is evidence Rashida Jones can deliver both behind and in front of the screen. In the right hands her talents can be mined to create a performance both daring and sweet. Celeste and Jesse suggests those "right hands" may be her own.
Having successfully established herself as a comedic actress in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Kristen Bell is next set to star in the indie ballet black comedy Dance of the Mirlitons, from young screenwriter and director Evan Greenberg. The story, which Greenberg conceptualized in middle school and finalized while attending NYU, centers on "an ambitious, slightly overweight ballerina with an overbearing mother (Bell) who will stop at nothing to become a star. The girl enters a "Mean Girls"-type environment when she has to prove her worth in class."
The project was picked up by Warner Independent after landing on the 2005 Blacklist (Hollywood's unofficial list of the top ten unproduced screenplays) alongside Juno and Lars and the Real Girl, but lost traction when the studio division closed down in 2008. It took Greenberg "a few years" to reacquire the rights to the script, but "once I got the rights back, it was about [finding] the right partner."
For that, Greenberg reached out to producers Daniel Dubiecki (who worked on the Oscar-nominated Up in the Air) and Joel Michaely, who got the project back on track by focusing on signing a well-known lead for the role of the mother before attempting to secure financial support. And Dubiecki believes Bell's is just the kind of name that will help the project move forward. "Kristen's combination of comedic timing and authenticity will bring this character to the next level, and give this crossover appeal," he said.
Now, Greenberg just needs an actress to play the film's "precocious 10 to 12-year-old" protagonist. "We're looking to discover an unknown," said Greenberg, just as 2000's Billy Elliot surfaced previously unrecognized talent in then 14-year-old Jamie Bell.
While progress on Dance of the Mirlitons has proceeded in fits and starts since Greenberg first shopped his script in 2005, he hopes that with the presence of Kristen Bell, production will begin this winter. "I hope that one day people will talk about how it was one of those movies that came together, fell apart, came together again," he said. "The best projects are the ones that take the most elbow grease to get made."
Brace yourself Dr. Laura. This clueless teen queen (Natasha Lyonne) has it all: good looks a football captain boyfriend and a popular pair of pom-poms. But her candy-colored world crumbles when her panicked parents stage an intervention after finding a Melissa Etheridge poster that leads them to conclude she's a friend of Ellen. After being carted off to an anti-gay rehab camp for teens the perky princess must choose between the straight and narrow-minded or the love that dare not speak its name.
The quirky ensemble casting is half this film's fun. Lyonne is charming as the pepster tempted by T&A and she sparks onscreen with swanky and sexy co-star Clea DuVall who plays the butch femme fatale suitor (alarmingly reminiscent of Nancy McKeon's Jo from "The Facts of Life.") Drag queen supreme RuPaul is unrecognizable out of his high heels and even higher blond wig wearing a "Straight is Great" T-shirt as a macho militant ex-gay counselor. Cathy Moriaty is sweetly sinister as the homophobic headmistress and Mink Stole steals scenes as the uptight upright meddling mom.
Kudos to Jamie Babbit for tackling this hot-potato topic but this well-intentioned film too often misses its mark turning potentially comical scenes into unbearably awkward moments. Babbit fouls when tugging at the heartstrings but hits home runs when the humor is at its broadest.