With Forgetting Sarah Marshall, director Nicholas Stoller joins the honorable ranks of capable helmers whose names will be forgotten simply because their work is the channeling of creative energies harnessed by producer Judd Apatow, who’s been in the business for almost two decades but whose brand of stories about sensitive slobs dealing with heartache and growing up is now doing as much to shape the cinematic zeitgeist as it does to reflect the yearnings of its geekiest admirers. The film was written by Jason Segel, who also stars in his first genuine leading role, and who came up under Apatow’s wing on “Freaks & Geeks” and has been part of the producer’s rotating company of players for a few years now. The film is another reunion for the familiar faces that have been popping up in Apatow’s films, and it also lives up to the greatest and truest potential of these kinds of films in its humor, angst, and characterizations. Put more simply: Forgetting Sarah Marshall is funny, sweet, and almost predictably wonderful at walking the line between comedy and drama as it lays out a story broad enough to be relatable but special enough to raise the characters from emotional place-holders and make them fresh, empathetic, and completely enjoyable.
Peter Bretter (Segel) is a composer for “Crime Scene,” a hacky TV procedural that stars Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell), his girlfriend of five years and the more mature half of their relationship. Being a composer affords Peter the chance to work from home and stay in sweatpants all day while eating giant bowls of cereal and watching TV; couple that with the fact that his job doesn’t call for melodic quality but merely half-formed chords and generic ominous thudding and the symptoms of extended adolescence become pretty easy to pick up. When Sarah calls one day to announce she’s coming home from work earlier than expected, Peter has just enough time to shower before she arrives and braces herself for the talk they’re about to have. “I love you very much,” she begins, and Peter’s face goes slack with the dawning realization that he’s being dumped as he simultaneously drops the towel around his waist. He stands there naked, and the moment packs all the shocking hilarity you could want while also managing to sum up Apatow’s entire philosophy: Humor and heartbreak are never far apart. She tells him there’s someone else, and like that, she’s gone. Peter turns for support to his stepbrother, Brian (Bill Hader), who reluctantly agrees to be Peter’s wingman as he hits the bars and tries to get Sarah out of his head. But Peter can’t get over her, so he decides to take a vacation to Hawaii to clear his head. The only problem is that once he arrives, he discovers that Sarah’s there with her new boyfriend, a pretentious singer named Aldous Snow (Russell Brand). Rather than just leave and find someplace else to go, which would make the most emotional sense, Peter decides to stick it out at the hotel.
That’s Segel’s whole plot, but it’s amazing how much mileage he gets out of the simple premise of breaking up a couple and forcing them to room next to each other for a week. Peter spends his first few days weeping uncontrollably, but he eventually starts to make a few friends at the resort, including Rachel (Mila Kunis), who works the front desk and who sympathetically comped Peter a room when he first arrived and discovered Sarah and Aldous strolling through the lobby. Rachel’s funny, kind, and manages to be nurturing enough to provide Peter the mothering he’s not quite done needing yet while also staying tough enough to keep him from completely collapsing. Peter’s quasi-rebound relationship with Rachel is more than just a way to forget Sarah Marshall, it’s a way for him to remember what he ever liked about her or anyone in the first place, and how that will change going forward. Movies that bear the Apatow imprimatur are all about coming right to the edge of the cliff and embracing the potentially devastating but nevertheless unavoidable next stage in your life, which Peter gets to do literally by hiking through the jungle one day with Rachel and jumping off a cliff into the ocean. (No one said metaphors have to be subtle to be resonant.) Peter’s been suffering from arrested development for too long, and Segel’s script cuts to the heart of the dilemma of prolonged childhood, though some instances are less work than others. For instance, Peter still sees his pediatrician, and though it’s a cute enough gag to see Segel’s frame draped over an exam table designed like a fire truck, the script’s best moments are when that fear of missing out on manhood makes itself known in (slightly) more subtle ways. When Peter and Rachel talk one night about their respective exes, Peter asserts that her former flame was an asshole for the way he treated her, but Rachel dismisses her old boyfriend with the most damning comment in Segel’s arsenal: “Nah, he’s just a boy.”
But first and foremost, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is a comedy about romance, and the film is packed with jokes and sight gags and pratfalls, bursting with everything from obscure pop culture references to riotous blue humor to puppet musicals and absurdist boar slaughter. (Not making any of that up.) Apatow regulars Jonah Hill and Paul Rudd even show up for a couple of supporting roles that they could do in their sleep, though they still do them well: Rudd plays the addle-minded surf instructor and Hill is the hotel waiter who’s sexually obsessed with Aldous. The rest of the cast is equally fantastic, from Brand’s oversexed lothario to Jack McBrayer’s sexually frustrated honeymooner. Kunis is warmer and sweeter here than in anything else she’s ever done, but of course, the film’s success rests with Segel and his evolving chemistry with Bell. Segel’s always been great at playing the goofy, sweet-natured sidekick in everything from “Freaks & Geeks” to Knocked Up; hell, he even played the same role on an episode of “Alias,” as if he’d wandered in from the cold. But his work here proves that he’s got the energy, charm, and nuance to carry a lead role. Peter doesn’t mope the whole time, and he doesn’t spend the movie angry at her, either; mostly, he drifts confusedly through his vacation, trying to figure out how he feels about Rachel and what to do with Sarah, who’s own rocky relationship causes her to start sending Peter the kinds of mixed signals he decidedly doesn’t need. But Sarah isn’t completely cold-hearted; Segel’s got too much respect for the story to make her thoroughly evil, and her emergence later in the game as someone just as confused and hurt as Peter lends the comedy a nice weight.
Ultimately, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is the kind of occasionally bawdy, mostly sensitive (-ish) kind of movie that you’d expect from Apatow’s name, and it hits all the right notes. It’s funny, but focused; lengthy enough to encapsulate significant character growth, but trim enough to feel like a compact story. Segel does a good job at blending comedy and drama and at taking stories and break-ups that have actually affected him and milking them for the kind of painful, knowing laughter that somehow makes life easier to take. He understands that to genuinely dwell on the pain would drive him crazy, so he skewers the whole process, including himself. As Peter Bretter says of his own lifelong dream to do a puppet-based rock opera about Dracula (which it would take too long to explain), “I didn’t realize it was a comedy, and someone told me it was, and it opened up the whole thing.” Not a bad way to live.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.I Love a Girl, She Loves the Sunset
Film | April 18, 2008 | Comments ()