Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Reviewed By William Goss
Posted 04/18/08 15:33:32

"Picking Up The Pieces On The Isle of Man"
5 stars (Awesome)

SCREENED AT THE 2008 SOUTH BY SOUTHWEST FILM FESTIVAL: For a film to introduce an audience in short order to a Peter and his peter, you need an actor who’s willing to be a little frank.

Enter Jason Segel, who wrote the raunchy rom-com Forgetting Sarah Marshall out of a healthy dose of real-life romantic humiliation (rumor has it that his former flame, TV star Linda Cardellini, did actually dump Segel whilst he was indeed starkers). Now, he finds himself re-enacting that moment with something resembling gusto and grace, as TV star Sarah Marshall (played by, um, TV star Kristen Bell) breaks up with poor Peter after a five-and-a-half-year run, leaving him naked in just about every sense – a motif that ends up coming full circle to amusing and even poignant effect.

In the aftermath, this vulnerable wreck of a man mopes about, unable to shake her pervasive media presence – as a composer, he works on the same show she stars on, a “CSI” send-up imaginatively titled “Crime Scene: Scene of the Crime,” which consequently places her front and center whenever he’s on the clock, in dailies which unintentionally leave her looming over more than one corpse at a time. However, after three solid weeks of shed tears, burnt photos, and poor lays, Peter’s stepbrother, Brian (Bill Hader), finally encourages him to get out of the house, get away from it all, and get his shit together. Peter thus opts for an impulsive vacation to Hawaii, and no sooner does his plane land in Oahu does he find himself inadvertently confronted by Sarah. As it turns out, she’s there with her new lover, bawdy Brit rocker Aldous Snow (Russell Brand), and rather than hightail it back to the mainland, Peter instead retreats to the suite courteously arranged for him by simpatico desk clerk Rachel (er, TV star Mila Kunis), only to end up repeatedly thrust into Sarah’s path all across the resort.

Under Brian’s continuous long-distance prodding, though, Peter starts to enjoy things anyway, particularly the company of others. There’s the stoned surf instructor (Paul Rudd), the religious newlyweds (Jack McBrayer and Maria Thayer), the chill bartender (Da'Vone McDonald), the waiter with an awkward affection for all things Aldous (Jonah Hill), and then, of course, we have Rachel, in Peter’s corner all the way when it comes to his getting over Sarah in spite of the tricky circumstances. And perhaps it’s most fitting that Peter – our crying clown, the Heartache Kid himself – has chosen the Fourth of July holiday on which to spend a week in paradise and declare his independence from the likes of Miss Marshall.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall is the kind of rom-com that makes one eager to dismiss the next Kate Hudson/Reese Witherspoon/Sandra Bullock piece of pap to come down the pipe in favor of producer Judd Apatow’s reliably heartfelt chuckle machines, which always plant themselves smack-dab between perceptive and pop-savvy. This outing seems to conceal even more vulnerability behind its incomparable sarcasm than what’s come before it – The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Superbad – but what do you expect from Segel, whose own sad-sack character professes how his career is based on “dark, ominous tones”? When Rudd’s full-time dude keeps declaring that “there’s some pain behind those eyes,” he speaks for the laughs as well. This isn’t to say that we’re talking about a downer here – The Break-Up, this thankfully isn’t – but as the relationship dynamics shift, it becomes clear that Sarah isn’t just some selfish bitch and that Peter will have to bear some blame for why their relationship fell apart – a truth that crystallizes in a modest but telling speech that Bell delivers with an emotional edge sharper than coral. Meanwhile, Kunis demonstrates a potent allure and emotive capacity that had gone otherwise untapped in her shriller small-screen efforts, making her compassionate, admittedly imperfect Rachel a worthy companion for the fragile likes of Peter.

It’s still a comedy, mind you. Hader is most blatant in his lobbing of one-liners but is not without landing his fair share of zingers, while Hill milks the creeps for all they’re worth and Rudd (naturally) tosses off the most quotable riffs of anyone in this considerable comedic ensemble. In the end, though, there are plenty to go around; everyone still gets their moment in the sun – well, scenes featuring the immensely amusing Kristen Wiig as a yoga instructor were reportedly cut, but from a purely editorial standpoint, it’s not an unreasonable move – although relative newcomer Brand arguably gets to make the biggest splash with his role as a man whose sexual prowess is only matched by his vacant morals and who is all too willing to (and I’m paraphrasing here) lose himself in fuck… a philosophy that Sarah doesn’t exactly take to heart and one never more evident than in the music created by Aldous’ band, Infant Sorrow. Perhaps the greatest testament to what Segel and company pull off is that the film offers up that group’s innuendo-laden ditty, “Inside of You”, for a couple of good laughs in the first hour, only to have the exact same song come back around and work as a genuine anthem of intimacy by the end credits. On a grander scale, that’s pretty much Segel’s most commendable asset here – that he, like Apatow, can manage to take the same old song, that of the familiar rom-com template, and transform it into something both raucous and true over the course of 110 loosely paced minutes.

As much an alum of Apatow’s short-lived sitcom “Undeclared” as Segel, director Nicholas Stoller does a well enough job of capturing the comedy against a beautiful backdrop, even if a couple of scenes here and there bear the unshakable sheen of post-production trickery. While he may in fact have a long and distinctive film career ahead of him, it really is hard for him not to be overshadowed by the guiding presence of Apatow, just as respective Superbad and Walk Hard helmers Greg Mottola and Jake Kasden arguably were. However, it’s difficult to deny that this film fits comfortably among his other recent comedies in terms of chronicling the anxieties of the modern man: the fear of sexual love with women (The 40YO Virgin), the fear of platonic love with men (Superbad), the fear of accounting for one’s own child (Knocked Up), and here, the fear of putting one’s heart back out into the crosshairs – and that goes for one’s creative heart as well, as Rachel encourages Peter to dust off that Dracula puppet musical he’s had on the back burner ever since Sarah coldly dismissed it. More to the point, in the middle of one supremely awkward dinner and a competitive session of post-meal coitus between the couples, Rachel implores that Peter stop being so sensitive, and yet she still ends up wounded by his best intentions and honest emotions later on. It’s merely our lead’s painfully accurate reflection of love on today’s tentative – hell, downright tectonic – terms.

As it just so happens, Segel’s most revealing moment of reflection seems to take place right at the outset, where our loveable lump stands before himself, a mirror, and a camera, and utters the film’s first words: “Good for you, Pete. Good for you.” No, good for you, Jason, and – more importantly, amidst all the interminable dross Hollywood has to offer – good for us.

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