Forgetting Sarah Marshall (United States, 2008)
With The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Judd Apatow succeeded in an endeavor that foiled many of the more accomplished directors to precede him: the merging of the romantic comedy, a quintessential "female genre," with the raunchy comedy, a quintessential "male genre." The result had broad appeal, especially among college-age adults. Apatow used the same basic formula to similar effect for his follow-up, Knocked Up. Now, at least temporarily, he has passed the baton to one of his buddies, former Freaks and Geeks cohort Jason Segel. Forgetting Sarah Marshall, written by and starring Segel and directed by first-timer Nicholas Stoller, is at least as good as the two Apatow-directed movies, with a script that might be both a little sharper and a little more romantic.
Peter Bretter (Jason Segel) has lost his love of life. A composer for a popular TV program, his preferred activity is lying on the couch while watching mind-numbing shows like Access Hollywood. But, as bad as things are going for Peter, he hasn't yet hit bottom. That moment arrives when his girlfriend of five years, actress Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell), announces that she's leaving him. While Sarah might have viewed their relationship as having run its course, Peter isn't of the same mind. He goes to pieces. After trying and failing to get over Sarah in Los Angeles, Peter decides that he needs a change of scenery, so he heads for Hawaii. As (bad) luck would have it, Sarah is there, at the same hotel, with her new boyfriend, rocker Aldous Snow (Russell Brand). The only ray of hope for Peter is the attractive hotel receptionist, Rachel (Mila Kunis), who sympathizes with Peter's situation and offers a supportive hand.
The characters in Forgetting Sarah Marshall are better developed than one expects in a movie of this sort. Segel plays Peter as a bit of a schlub, but not so much of a loser that the audience can't relate to him. Kristen Bell, stepping away from the small screen, avoids the easy out of portraying Sarah as a bitch. She brings a touch of humanity to the role, ensuring that while viewers may not respect the character, they don't dislike her. Mila Kunis, who has spent the majority of her career on That '70s Show, is delightful as the bubbly Rachel. This is the kind of part that can lead to bigger and better opportunities because she's not just easy on the eyes, she's adept with her performance and understands the concept of comic timing. It doesn't take long for Rachel to become Forgetting Sarah Marshall's most vivid character. Several Apatow regulars have small roles. Bill Hader is Peter's less-than-supportive brother, Jonah Hill is a creepy waiter, and Paul Rudd is a surfing teacher named Chuck whose brain has been fried by weed.
When it comes to leading by example, Segel doesn't shy away from controversy. Most of the film's nudity comes from him, as he does the Full Monty on several occasions. As is usually the case with male nudity, it's all done in the name of shock value and comedy. (In a sexual context, similar nudity would earn an NC-17.) There's some peek-a-boo nakedness from Kristen Bell and Mila Kunis but neither really shows much, and those scenes are tame compared with Segel's forceful assertion that, at least in R-rated movies, the penis is a sadly neglected organ. (At the time when Walk Hard was released, Apatow stated that, from now on, all of the movies with which he was involved as a writer, director, or producer would feature at least one penis. He's two for two.)
The balance between raunchiness and romance in Forgetting Sarah Marshall is carefully calibrated so that the movie never leans too far in either direction. There are times when it seems like a cousin to When Harry Met Sally, and other occasions when it's more closely related to Animal House. While the comedy may be universally sophomoric, it's often smarter than it initially seems and the lowbrow gags, while they are present, don't dominate. Yes, there are a lot of sex jokes, but they're just that - sex jokes. Forgetting Sarah Marshall is almost entirely devoid of gross-out moments and it never descends into the gutter where so many other so-called "comedies" get their loudest laughs, yet the movie isn't any less funny because of it. I'm not going to argue that Forgetting Sarah Marshall is in "good taste" or that its humor is sophisticated, but it shows that comedy can be hilarious and dirty without becoming disgusting.
There's a wit in Segel's writing that marks him as every bit Apatow's equal in this arena. His dialogue crackles and he has an instinct when it comes to taking expected romantic comedy scenarios and tweaking them ever-so-slightly so they don't play out exactly as expected. Sure, the movie ends the way it's supposed to, but the path to get there isn't as straightforward as one might suppose. Would the scenario work if so much of the humor didn't hit home? Fortunately, that's not a question that needs to be answered. And Forgetting Sarah Marshall is surprisingly sweet. The biggest thing Segel shows during the course of this movie isn't his dick, it's his heart.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall (United States, 2008)
Cast: Jason Segel, Kristen Bell, Mila Kunis, Russell Brand, Bill Hader, Jonah Hill, Paul Rudd
Screenplay: Jason Segel
Cinematography: Russ T. Alsobrook
Music: Lyle Workman
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures