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Salsa Rom-Com Cuban Fury Splits the Difference

There’s something vaguely embarrassing about the hip-swiveling salsa craze that infatuated gringos in the ’90s after suburban moms deemed the lambada too outré.

To Bruce (Nick Frost), it’s doubly shameful: Not only was he once a peacocking teenage dance prodigy, he quit after bullies forced him to eat his own sequins. Twenty-five years later, he’s resigned to mediocrity when his new boss, Julia (a charming-as-ever Rashida Jones), a salsa nut, makes his heart go heel-toe-spin.

Time to wax his chest, slick on fake tanner, and convince his dour former coach (Ian McShane) to resume their lessons. Frost can play lovable losers in his sleep, but to succeed, Cuban Fury has to make him dance. A fat man falling down gets a cheap laugh; a fat man with magic feet makes us cheer.

Director James Griffiths splits the difference between ridicule and respect, and the resulting comedy is as trite and cloying as a rum and coke. Chris O’Dowd (Bridesmaids) perks things up as Bruce’s snide coworker who vies for Julia’s attentions, even undermining the premise of the film by asking, “You thought that the parsnip would win the butterfly by doing a bit of tiny shoe shuffle?” Actually, yes.

Cuban Fury does think a Nice Guy™ deserves to win the girl of his choice with a little sweat. Which means as progressive as it might feel for fat guys, losers, and salsa stalwarts, it’s rotten for women: Julia — who shows only chummy interest in both men — must still date one of them at the end.

Hey, let’s make this next dance a Sadie Hawkins.

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Watch Jimmy Fallon and Rashida Jones Sing About Stuffing Their Holiday Faces

Following Thanksgiving on Thursday, Rashida Jones visited Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and the two performed a medley (mainly) about the drawbacks of overeating during the holidays.

The mashup is set to the tunes you already know — Gangnam Style, Beautiful, that Taylor Swift song that is Never, Ever, Ever getting out of your head — but reveals itself as a likely Thanksgiving classic when the lyrics to “Call Me Maybe” morph into “Pass the Gravy.”

The holiday season has officially arrived.

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Rashida Jones Steps Out On Her Own

In terms of looks, charisma, and talent, Rashida Jones should have been a star a long time ago. But in terms of what she’s ready to offer Hollywood (and what Hollywood finally might be ready to let her accomplish), her belated ascent seems well-timed. Bittersweet breakup comedy Celeste and Jesse Forever, which opens this week, marks Jones’s debut as both a screenwriter (Will McCormack co-scripted) and a name-above-the-title romantic lead (she stars opposite SNL‘s Andy Samberg). In the context of her career, each feels oddly out of character.

After more than a decade of hovering just beyond notoriety in TV shows like The Office and Parks and Recreation, and in supporting roles in films like The Social Network and I Love You, Man, she’s finally ready for more attention—and responsibility. “I generally work with ensembles and like to be second fiddle. I’ve made a career out of doing that,” she tells me by phone. “This movie’s the first time that I’ve consciously put myself at the forefront of something, and it’s slightly scary.” But therein lies Jones’s considerable allure in Celeste and Jesse Forever: She’s game to enact fearfulness fearlessly, and to play abashed unabashedly. When Celeste’s separation from Jesse spirals out of her control, this would-be star vehicle becomes a plausible portrait of a thirtysomething woman on the verge, complete with humiliating comeuppances and crazy-cat-lady hair. In today’s romantic comedies, “women tend to look beautiful and perfect even when everything around them is crumbling,” she says, which is problematic for both cinema and society. “It’s just as dangerous and destructive as women being Photoshopped on billboards. It’s not a real portrayal of how we are.”

At age 36, and firmly in possession of a singular, frankly unfair beauty—she’s a regular on People magazine’s “Most Beautiful People in the World” list—Jones is free of the smothering expectations that accompany young starletdom. “I’ve spent a lot of time talking about doing things and then being inert from the fear of judgment,” she says. “Getting older, fear holds you back less.” Much like Kristen Wiig, another ace ensemble actress who penned her own breakthrough role, Jones has met her mid-thirties headlong, with comedic—rather than surgical—self-effacement.

Yet Jones has always seemed removed from Hollywood’s more desperate side, something that doubtless contributed to her slower passage to stardom and now helps fuel her prepossessing appeal. A daughter of legendary music producer Quincy Jones and actress Peggy Lipton, she didn’t start acting professionally until after graduating from Harvard (where she studied philosophy and religion), and has dabbled in music, politics, even comic book writing (“I didn’t know a lot about it, and for that reason I wanted to do it,” she explains).

She admits to have considered changing careers until she landed her role on The Office six years ago. “I have friends who are clearly born to act—it’s their drive, it’s their passion. They have no choice in a way,” she says. “I feel like I could do something else if I had to. I’m not incredibly attached to the outcome of my career visions. And I feel a bit of guilt about that.” But whether it’s powered by humility or wisdom, she talks of habitually and happily deferring to the other comedians in her midst (from The Office‘s Steve Carell to Parks and Recreation‘s Amy Poehler), stepping forward only when—as with Celeste and Jesse—she felt as if she had something unique to offer.

But it’s telling that Jones’s breakthrough is actually a product of intense collaboration—she talks of literally writing side by side with McCormack—and functions as an ensemble, showcasing equally unsung contemporaries like Chris Messina and Ari Graynor. No matter what comes next for her, Jones says she has little interest in straying too far from the pack. “I come from a huge family. I depend on people. I think the reason to be here is to be with everybody else,” she says. “Nobody is great alone. I don’t even think it’s fun to be great alone.”

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Celeste and Jesse Forever, Rom-Competent

In Celeste and Jesse Forever, the titular, newly separated female protagonist’s un-flamboyant queer co-worker (Elijah Wood) tells her “it’s time get your fuck on,” and then immediately apologizes: “Sorry, I was trying to be your saucy gay friend.” Co-written by and starring Parks and Rec straight woman Rashida Jones, Forever is a notably lo-fi entry into the recent trend of romantic comedies that think acknowledging the genre’s clichés is as good as subverting them (see last summer’s studio offerings Friends With Benefits and What’s Your Number?). Throughout, stereotypes are trotted out so that the movie can wink that it’s too smart for them.

A couple since puberty, L.A. thirtysomethings Celeste (Rashida Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg) are in the middle of history’s most amicable divorce. They’re best friends who still crack each other up with baby-talk in-jokes, and can’t resist a wine-fueled hookup. So why did they break up? Because Celeste is the type of judgy, materialistic career girl these films exist to knock down a peg. Stylish workaholic girl dumped hoodied man-child boy because “he doesn’t have a checking account, or dress shoes.” But because her own self-sufficiency is essentially a game of dress-up, she happily lets her soon-to-be-ex-husband live in her guesthouse; he accepts, pride and privacy be damned, because he’s holding out hope for a marital reunion. When Jesse discovers that an agreeable one-night-stand is pregnant, he makes moves to “man up,” moving in with his baby mama and leaving Celeste to face adult life without her codependent human security blanket. A branding expert who shoots down a potential suitor by nailing what his lifestyle choices supposedly say about who he is, Celeste is herself ironically un-self-aware to the point of caricature. Bad dates, intoxicated humiliation, whoops-I-let-boy-trouble-distract-me-at-work professional incompetence, fashion disasters (because ladies, we stop washing our hair when we are sad), and groovy music montages pave the road to her enlightenment.

An indie in evident budget if not in spirit, Forever scores a big F on the Bechdel test, in that its women are almost entirely defined by their relationships with men, even in their conversations with other women. One female antagonist becomes an ally when she needs Celeste’s shoulder to cry on after a breakup. The appealing Ari Graynor plays Celeste’s supposed best female friend, a relationship that’s spoken of occasionally but minimized on-screen—even a set piece at Graynor’s character’s wedding seems to exist just to hit a beat in the Celeste and Jesse relationship. Graynor deserves better than second-banana marginalization. So does the charismatically swarthy Chris Messina, who, as the potential love interest whom Celeste ostensibly puts in his place with her knowledge of consumer psychology, has enough of a genuine spark with Jones that he’s sorely missed when he disappears for a huge chunk of the movie. As Celeste travels further down a rabbit hole of self-pity, director Lee Toland Krieger turns the subjectivity knob up to 11, meaning that the camera goes out of focus when Celeste has confusing feelings. The character’s increasingly clouded mental state seems to dictate the edit, but there’s a difference between stoner logic and a scattered narrative in which characters smoke pot a lot.

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HAPPILY (UN)MARRIED

Celeste and Jesse Forever, the debut screenwriting venture by Parks and Recreation star Rashida Jones, was a lot more like “Celeste and Jesse Never” for the past three years, up until its recent premiere at Sundance. The script was sold to Fox Atomic in 2009, then Overture, both of which promptly folded. Jones claimed in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter to have “basically tried to set it up five or six times before we made it.” But like the protagonists in the film, which Jones wrote alongside actor and childhood buddy Will McCormack, the project endured despite repeated rejection. Jones stars opposite former SNL player Andy Samberg (in one of his rare semi-serious roles), and the two portray a divorced couple attempting to maintain longtime friendship. Jones, McCormack, and director Lee Toland Krieger will be on hand for a Q&A after the screening.

Tue., July 31, 7 p.m., 2012