Peter (Jason Segal) is trying very, very hard to get over being dumped by his girlfriend, TV star Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell). Toward that end, he’s vacationing in Hawaii, where he’s met a sweet hotel worker Rachel (Mila Kunis). As they share a drink on the beach one evening, he listens to her tale of lost love, an ex who cheated on her. “What an asshole!” Peter exclaims in eager sympathy. “No,” she sighs vaguely, “He’s just a boy.”
Peter’s disappointed that he’s been revealed as “wrong,” but here Forgetting Sarah Marshall makes another point. For all the comedic masculine sturm-und-dranging in these movies, the punchline tends to be the same: boys are predictable, self-involved, and utterly mystified by girls. When she articulates the problem in this moment, Rachel is initially uninterested in Peter’s story. It is, after all, the same story, a story about a boy, again.
That said, this version is slightly less grating than previous versions, mainly because Peter straddles the boy-to-man divide with less visible aggression than his more plainly adolescent predecessors. Unlike the dad-to-be in Knocked Up of high school seniors in Superbad, he has been employed and has sustained something like a longtime relationship. He thinks he understands their dynamic, and s frankly surprised when she admits his lack of energy and mobility has bored her for years.
The breakup itself is devastating and awkwardly funny, both specific and bizarrely “universal” (Segal reports that it’s inspired by his own experience). Having just emerged from the shower when Sarah arrives at his L.A. home to tell him she’s leaving him, he drops his towel and spends long minutes exposed and ultra-vulnerable. When she asks him to get dressed, his voice rises and trembles: “If I put clothes on,” he whimpers, “It’s over.” Between his limp penis and her growing embarrassment lies a wide range of feelings, none of which needs to be spelled out in one-line gags. Weird and discomfiting, the scene has a rhythm that more or less explains itself. And, coming right near the start of the film, it sets up a complex focus on his boyish self-deprecation, self-obsession, and dire insecurity.
It’s a promising start, even if Forgetting Sarah Marshall can’t sustain such complexity. It devolves most often into splatty physical humor and sex pattering, arranged banally by Peter’s self-declared competition with Sarah’s next boy, the soft-bodied, hips-thrusting British rock star Aldous Snow (Russell Brand). Because he has no such investment in the rivalry, or in Sarah for that matter, Aldous is the perfect foil for this non-opposition, Peter in another phase, maybe before now or maybe after, categorically more like him than different.
In order to grant Peter a plot, the movie sets him on a path that seems developmental: in order to forget Sarah, he must come to appreciate another girl (Rachel) but more importantly, he encounters a series of other boys, each more ridiculous than the one before. So, his goofy, self-regarding stepbrother (Bill Hader) advises him to head to Hawaii (where he inadvertently stays at the same resort as Sarah and Aldous, providing for multiple run-ins and much fretfulness). The stepbrothers’ exchanges over internet video structure a running confessional for Peter, as he also observes a series of bad options. The obligatory local, Kemo (Taylor Willy), jumpstarts the advising when he greets Peter with a big hug: “It’s like The Sopranos,” he notes of the Sarah chapter, “It’s over!” From Dwayne the bartender (Da’Vone McDonald) and Matthew the waiter (Jonah Hill) to Paul Rudd’s anti-zen surfing instructor, Chuck (“When life gives you lemons, just say, ‘Fuck the lemons’ and bail”) and a beleaguered newlywed named Darald (Jack McBrayer), Peter sees again and again how not to behave.
The formula dictates that Sarah and Rachel are props along the road to Peter’s discovery of “true love.” It’s heartening that Sarah and Peter can sit down to discuss their careers after the cancellation of the TV series on which they met (he composes music for the hyper-stylized Crime Scene, she’s been the lead), and her observation concerning her options is properly depressing (“Seemingly the only actresses that survive are the ones who show their cooters”). Even better, Sarah contemplates her effort to make the jump from TV to the movies during a dinner that has her sitting down with the self-loving Aldous (he invites her to come on the road with his band: “You can be the queen of the groupies, the queen of the sorrow suckers”), and the recently hooked-up Peter and Rachel. Jealous and determined to keep Peter’s interest, she drinks too much and begins to ponder her effort to transition from TV to the big screen in an instantly forgettable horror movie. When Aldous reminds her that it’s about “what would happen if your cell phone killed you,” Sarah makes the case for its art, insisting, not very convincingly, “It’s supposed to be a metaphor about addiction to technology.”
The reference to Bell’s own very bad horror movie, Pulse, is sharp enough, but the moment is more tellingly yet another indication of Sarah’s status as signpost along Peter’s path to generic maturity. As Sarah turns progressively unappealing, needy and selfish, Peter is apparently more independent, or at least less debilitated. His process is protracted in ways that are sometimes unfunny and sometimes obnoxious, though also leavened by his dedication to a personal project, a rock opera for puppets “about Dracula and eternal love.”
This supremely silly production helps to make Peter’s “recovery” look less sentimental than it might otherwise, but the movie is mired in its romantic comedy machinery. For all the delight taken in the Apatow factory’s teenaged sex-obsessive outrageousness, the stories it churns out are decidedly familiar: boys meet, pursue, and get girls. This devotion to cliché guarantees an audience seeking cinematic comfort food even as it imagines it’s “transgressing” a previous generation’s moral edicts. It’s also, by definition, old.