April 17, 2008

Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Dude, this really isn't a good way
to get back at your ex-girlfriend.

Grade: B +
Director: Nick Stoller
Starring: Jason Segel, Kristen Bell, Mila Kunis, Bill Hader, and Paul Rudd
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 1 hour, 52 minutes

It is worth remembering that, long before the Judd Apatow comedic reign began, the Farrelly Brothers were once the toast of Tinseltown, working in scatology the way some artists work with watercolors. After defining (and influencing) film comedy for the decade of the 1990s with Dumb and Dumber, Me, Myself & Irene and There’s Something About Mary, the Farrellys’ began to wane the minute they forgot how to balance “shock and guffaw” with an undercurrent of sentimentality. Consequently, the directors of Kingpin began rolling one gutter ball after another.

This was the fate waiting to befall the House of Apatow due to brand oversaturation and its last three entrĂ©es: Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (which I liked but apparently the movie-going public did not), Superbad (which most fans and critics liked but I didn’t), and last month’s Drillbit Taylor (which no one liked). So, the rapid follow-up of Forgetting Sarah Marshall bears all the earmarks of yet another stab at recapturing fading glory.

Instead, the film has perhaps already earned distinction as the funniest movie of the year. The film acts as the third leg of Apatow’s unofficial relationship trilogy: The 40 Year Old Virgin undressed the ethos of adult sexuality; Knocked Up explored the travails of parenthood and, to a lesser degree, marriage; and Forgetting Sarah Marshall is, well, all about the break-up.

Specifically, it begins with the split between the titular famous actress (Kristen Bell) and her schlub of a boyfriend, Peter (Jason Segel). Sarah stars alongside Billy Baldwin in Crime Scene, a cheesy, archetypal TV crime show for which Peter composes the background music. Wallowing in self-pity, Peter jets off for a solo Hawaiian convalescence, unaware that Sarah and her new beau – a Euro-pop lothario named Aldous Snow (Russell Brand), leader of the band “Infant Sorrow” – are staying at the same island resort.

What sets apart Forgetting Sarah Marshall is not merely the wit of a screenplay also written by Segel, but also the effortless way it stirs together a gumbo of shocking visual gags, romance, and pop-culture touchstones – few films could effectively (and hilariously) reference The Lord of the Rings, the JFK assassination, and Flavor of Love.

Moreover, whereas the Farrelly Brothers’ rim shots involved testicles snagged in zippers, Apatow’s payoffs are more – dare I say – meaningful. A scene in which Peter’s erectile difficulty acts as coitus interruptus with Sarah is grounded in an uncomfortable truth to which many couples can uncomfortably relate. Peter’s dream of composing a puppet rock opera about Dracula is plainly played for laughs, but it is also framed as Peter’s particularized version of the latent, sometimes harebrained ambitions everyone secretly harbors.

I defy any red-blooded male to watch this film without being utterly captivated by Mila Kunis (That ‘70s Show), who is a revelation as the fetching Rachel, the hotel’s desk clerk and a mainland expatriate. There’s definitely something about Rachel, and her dalliance with Peter under Sarah’s nose lends the storyline an added dimension of sexual politics, not to mention a credible love interest.

Meanwhile, the regular cadre of Apatow favs, including Jonah Hill, Bill Hader, and Paul Rudd, round out a terrific supporting cast that is given plenty of screen-time but is never permitted to steal the show. That said, Jack McBrayer (30 Rock) walks away with plenty of scenes as a virgin newlywed whose wife’s wildcat bedroom propensities frighten his religious sensibilities. And, as a stoner surf instructor, Rudd reels off my new favorite mantra: "When life gives you lemons, just say 'F**k the lemons' and bail."

However, the real star is Segel, a Freaks and Geeks grad now seen in the TV series How I Met Your Mother. Segel bares all – physically and emotionally – and turns in a deceptively versatile performance that binds the film together, even through its somewhat draggy second half. Although the specter of a dopy every-dude dating a famous celebrity, getting comped the penthouse suite at a Hawaiian hotel, and then scoring the prettiest girl at the resort is more incredible than Knocked Up’s Seth Rogan impregnating a gorgeous E! television reporter, we somehow buy into the tableau. It’s all part of the Apatow era – enjoy it while you can.

Neil Morris

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