Apparently, Drillbit Taylor was just a fluke. After a year which saw comedy giant Judd Apatow score with Knocked Up, Superbad, and the highly underrated Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, 2008 sure started off with a stumble. Though the former Freaks and Geeks creator who literally resuscitated the dying big screen laughfest played a small role in the Owen Wilson flop, some saw the underperforming picture as an indicator of a fleeting 15 minutes. Apparently the funny business funeral was scheduled a little early. Instantly becoming one of this year’s best films—humorous or not—the hilarious Forgetting Sarah Marshall shows that this satire sage and his gang of comic compatriots are not going anywhere anytime soon.
After five years of heartfelt togetherness, TV actress Sarah Marshall and her cop series composer boyfriend Peter Bretter are breaking up. She’s started seeing UK rock sensation Aldous Snow. He’s suddenly alone, devastated, and lost his will to live. Luckily, Peter’s stepbrother Brian suggests he take a trip. Our hero picks Hawaii, one of Sarah’s favorite destinations. Sure enough, the star is there with her cocky British boy toy. Undercut by the coincidence, he sinks into himself. Quite by accident, he ends up befriended by sympathetic hotel clerk Rachel Jansen. As their relationship blossoms, Peter still carries a torch for Sarah. Somehow, he believes, the feeling may be mutual—and he just might be right.
Written with a sensationally smutty Woody Allen expertise and loaded with big fat bawdy barrel laughs, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is another wacked out winner. It continues the solid ‘buttheads getting hot babes’ formula that fueled last year’s Seth Rogen hit while proving that Apatow remains the MSG master of crudity. Everyone he works with—in this case, writer/actor/friend Jason Segel—sees their game enhanced ten-fold. This is a wonderful film, a foul-mouthed fiesta of heart and true human emotions. One of the things that critics constantly miss when musing on the Apatow-supported oeuvre is that the dialogue is never overly cute or purposefully ‘written’. Instead, the characters communicate like real people do, from the sex-obsessed teens of Superbad to the depressed dramatics here.
Casting is crucial to making a movie like this work, and first time director Nicholas Stoller does an amazing job in choosing his actors. Segel, who usually sinks into the background as a second banana’s second banana, is wonderful as Peter. He is just pathetic enough, wussed out and whiny without completely getting on your nerves. When things start to turn around for him romantically, we instantly root for him. We want to see him happy. The same can’t be said for Kristen Bell. Her title tart is the film’s most complex part. She has to be selfish without being totally self-centered, driven without seeming drastic. Her break-up scene works well since it comes right up front, before we learn more about Sarah’s flaws. By the end of the narrative, we’ve grown to both hate and pity her.
On the supporting side of things, Mila Kunis is incredible as Rachel. Her demeanor has to be faultless in order for us to champion Peter’s ultimate choice. She works the focused freespirit angle expertly, and we sense a real chemistry with Segel. Indeed, Stoller’s major achievement is finding performers who are both individually fearless and totally in sync with each other. No one catches a break here—all the characters are uncloaked, purposefully presented warts (STDs) and all. About the only awkwardness comes from Russell Brand’s Snow. He’s such a Brit band cliché, a worldview wimp who believes sex is a God given bad boy birthright that we just want to smack him silly. Luckily, Segel’s script takes him down a notch to a semi-human level before simply restating his repugnance.
But the humor here goes far beyond the plausible personal interaction. Apatow typically champions an “anything for a giggle” dynamic, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall follows this mandate magnificently. Some of the best moments are derived from genitalia based putdowns and sexual pantomime, but there’s also some very inside wittiness (Bell’s actress gets blasted for being in an unsuccessful horror film in which cellphones kill people ala Pulse) and a brilliant puppet musical spoof that ends things with a bravura bang. Toss in gratuitous male nudity, a wonderful sibling rivalry between Peter and Brian (Bill Hader is brilliant in the role) and you’ve got the standard Apatow cocktail—heavy on the vulgarity, incredibly light on the lameness.
Perhaps the most stunning part of Forgetting Sarah Marshall isn’t how clever or unconventional it is. No, what really sets this film apart is its dark and rather desperate tone. Peter is not the fun-loving loser who just can’t get lucky in the love department. He’s a self-loathing lump who uses rejection and domination as a means of emotional connection. When he learns to have fun, to simply sit back and let life have its way with him (for bad and for good), he finally finds freedom. He’s still a bitter man, and this is a narrative that definitely thrives on such acidity. The Woody Allen allusion is totally apropos. This is a film filled with angst-driven head cases hoping to avoid the classic “dead shark” analogy. Watching them try is what makes Forgetting Sarah Marshall work.
With the Will Ferrell/John C. Reilly effort Step Brothers coming out in July, and the Seth Rogen/Evan Goldberg scripted Pineapple Express arriving in August, Apatow shows no signs of slowing down—and if either of those films is as funny and fresh as Forgetting Sarah Marshall, here’s hoping he never does. This is the movie last years horrendous Heartbreak Kid remake wanted to be. The only things missing then were nerve, talent, foresight, and intelligence. A broken heart can be a bitch. Thanks to Jason Segel and his sensational screenplay, it can also be a beautiful, laugh out loud thing as well.