A smartly written, sneaky character study

Celeste and Jesse are best friends who happen to be married. Celeste and Jesse Forever is a sly, offbeat comedy about events that either will drive a wedge between them or further reinforce their bond.

Celeste (Rashida Jones, enchanting even when her character is irritating) is a driven media consultant dishing up tasty sound bites.

She's pushing her trendspotting book  while also pushing Jesse (Andy Samberg, deadpan and droll), her unambitious artist spouse, to be more aggressive about promoting his work to gallerists.

By the way, Celeste and Jesse are legally separated, a status that upsets their friends. She secretly hopes the split will motivate him to action, just as he secretly hopes it will make her lonely so she will invite him to move back from the guesthouse into the main one.

As underscored in the film, smartly written by Jones and Will McCormack (who has a small, hilarious role as a pot dealer), Celeste insists on the driver's seat and Jesse prefers to be a passenger. That's one way to manage a marriage - but not if what you want is an equal partnership.

More than anything, Celeste wants to be the smartest one in the room. Like the heroines of other recent meditations on modern romance - Friends With Kids, Lola Versus, and Take This Waltz - Celeste spends much time second-guessing herself. While I liked all four films, I winced when each prescribed a dose of humiliation as a means of advancing the heroine's self-awareness.

But how delightfully funny Jones is. Asked out by a fellow student (Chris Messina) in her yoga class, she returns his friendly serve by slamming back a 30-second analysis of him based on the car he drives. Celeste's snap judgments are self-revealing rather than close-minded.

Samberg, who costarred with Jones in the very funny I Love You, Man, is likewise surprising here as Jesse. Typically a high-energy prankster with an arrested-adolescent sense of humor, Samberg plays it low-key and reflective, foreshadowing a deepening of character.

As directed by Lee Toland Krieger, Celeste and Jesse is a travelogue through Los Angeles neighborhoods that ordinarily don't get a lot of screen time, including a Mexican eatery that specializes in "veganchiladas."

It's hard to know whether this is a function of the sympathetic screenplay or of Krieger's sympathetic direction - or both - but Celeste and Jesse are endearing even when they do unsympathetic things.

At its core the film works because it's about a trend forecaster who's smart about broad cultural patterns, and less so about the trends in her own life.

When her relationship with Jesse implodes, so does her career. Soon after Celeste puts down a Ke$ha-like pop tart (Emma Roberts) on national television, the trendcaster's partner (Elijah Woods, drily funny) signs the sullen singer to their roster. And it turns out that the teenager and her handler are at roughly the same stage of social development.

Fortunately, trends, like this sneakily funny character study, are very optimistic.

Contact Carrie Rickey at carriedrickey@gmail.com. Follow her at http://www.carrierickey.com.

Celeste and Jesse Forever

Directed by Lee Toland Krieger. With Janel Parrish, Emma Roberts, Ari Graynor, Andy Samberg, Chris D'Elia, Elijah Wood, Eric Christian Olsen, Chris Messina, Sarah Wright, Rashida Jones. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.

Running time: 1 hours, 29 minutes.

Parent's guide: R (for language, sexual content and drug use).