Forget the talk about Judd Apatow’s laff factory being a sexist boys’ club: “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” emphasizes men’s failures, not women’s. It is men who cry the most in the film, for a variety of reasons, most of them emotional. It is men who are weak and foolish and asinine. And it is a man who presents himself at his most vulnerable: completely naked while his clothed girlfriend dumps him.
The man in question is Jason Segel, an Apatow regular who wrote and stars in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” It is another raucous yet sensitive R-rated comedy from producer Apatow, this time directed by writer Nicholas Stoller but bearing all the hallmarks of an Apatow product. Sex and nudity are played for laughs, and they genuinely earn them — not by shocking us, but by reminding us of the awkward hilarity of intimate relationships. The honesty works, and “Sarah Marshall” is another home run for the Apatow team.
Segel plays Peter Bretter, a Los Angeles slacker and the longtime boyfriend of the title woman (played by Kristen Bell), an actress who stars in a “CSI”-style TV show. Peter writes the musical score for the series — a cushy job, since it’s usually nothing more than a few ominous tones played on a synthesizer. He and Sarah love each other. Life is good.
Until she dumps him, that is, having met someone else — Aldous Snow (British comic Russell Brand), a skinny, preening rock star whose music videos have him promoting world peace by kissing nuns and holding up signs that say “Sodomize Intolerance.” Devastated by the breakup, Peter flees to Hawaii to a resort Sarah once recommended to him. Unfortunately, Sarah and Aldous have chosen the same place to spend their vacation. They’re on a collision course with wackiness!
Getting past the sitcom-y setup, the film quickly finds hilarity in Peter’s pathetic sadness. Some of the laughs are the expected kind — the front desk clerk says there have been complaints about sounds of “a woman sobbing” in Peter’s hotel room — while others are much more surprising, as when Peter weeps while playing the theme from “The Muppet Show” on the piano.
Peter is befriended by Rachel (Mila Kunis), a hotel employee who takes pity on his plight. Peter sees her as a potential rebound girlfriend, while Rachel — who has her own batch of relationship craziness to deal with — initially sees Peter as just a pal. In the meantime, he takes surfing lessons from a spacey dude played by Paul Rudd, doing a fantastic parody of the laidback Hawaiian mahalo B.S. that vacationers must endure. (“When life gives you lemons, just say ‘f*** those lemons,’ and bail.”) He also hangs out with Darald (Jack McBrayer, Kenneth the Page on “30 Rock”), a honeymooning bumpkin who can’t seem to work out the specifics of consummating his marriage.
And yes, Peter interacts with Sarah and Aldous, too — fearfully at first, then gradually more comfortably as he gets used to the idea of not being Sarah’s boyfriend anymore. We learn that Peter was not blameless in the dissolution of their relationship. Snippets of flashbacks (several characters have them) give us insight into Peter’s and Sarah’s shortcomings, all of them funny, and all of them having an air of truth about them.
In the periphery is a host of small roles played by sharp-witted pros, including Jonah Hill as an Aldous-obsessed hotel waiter and Bill Hader as Peter’s stepbrother, who offers counsel via iChat. You can imagine the film being assembled by Apatow calling his buddies and saying, “Hey, come hang out on the set for a few days and shoot some scenes.”
Perhaps as a result of the casual attitude, the film sometimes feels episodic and disjointed. There are sequences that don’t reflect any development on the part of the characters who appear in them, and which thus could have appeared in any order (or been cut altogether, which no doubt was the fate of some scenes). There’s a huge section of the film that, while funny, doesn’t go anywhere in terms of telling the story or fleshing out the characters. Maybe that’s more an observation than a complaint, though; the scenes are funny.
What’s most impressive about the film’s abundant comedy is how diverse it is. There is situational humor, relationship humor, and battle-of-the-sexes humor. There’s also Hollywood-insider satire, and plenty of throwaway jokes tossed off in the course of conversation. The humor seems to flow naturally from the characters and their situations, almost never forced or contrived.
This is Segel’s first starring role, and it’s his film all the way. I admire his level of commitment and his ability to center a movie around himself without it becoming a vanity project. (Peter is funny, but I could name 10 other characters in the film who get just as many laughs.) All good writers write what they know, but Segel bares his entire soul here — not to mention his other parts — and lays it all out there for us to laugh at. Better him than me. Thanks, Jason!
B+ (1 hr., 52 min.; )