MasterChugs Theater: ‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall’

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. Apatow used the same basic formula to similar effect for his follow-up, Knocked Up. With Forgetting Sarah Marshall, he passed the baton to one of his buddies, former Freaks and Geeks cohort Jason Segel. The movie, written by and starring Segel and directed by first-timer Nicholas Stoller, is at least as good as the two Apatow-directed films, with a script that’s both a little sharper and a little more romantic.

And that’s a good thing.

For Peter Bretter, a television composer with dreams of putting together a rock opera involving Sesame Street-style puppets, vampires, and eternal love, it doesn’t get more socially awkward when his girlfriend of five years, Sarah Marshall, the star of a CSI- television series, Crime Scene, dumps him for an English rock star, Aldous Snow. After a string of one-night stands, each more disastrous than the last, Peter takes his step-brother Brian’s advice and goes on vacation to Hawaii, a place Sarah always talked about visiting but never did. Not coincidentally, Sarah and Snow are already in Hawaii. Worse, they’re staying in the same hotel. Preferring to torture himself further, Peter takes the suite right next to Sarah and Aldous.

Luckily for Peter, a hotel employee, Rachael, takes first pity, then actual interest in him, hanging with him after hours, introducing him to confidence-building activities, and all around making him feel better about himself and the break-up. Of course, just as Peter gets closer to Rachael, Sarah begins to have second doubts about a future with the self-absorbed snow, setting up the inevitable choice for Peter: a future with Rachael or the past with Sarah. Along the way, Peter takes life lessons from a stoner surfing instructor, observes relationships around him sputter or take off, all the while running into another hotel employee, Matthew, who plays on Peter’s anxieties and doubts about himself.

It cuts uncomfortably close to real life, but that’s what makes it funny (“It’s funny because it’s true”). After all, behind the placid facade of most men, there’s usually a Sarah Marshall, who witnessed the pathetic breakup scene, the regrettable episode of weeping or some other self-inflicted emasculation. We’ve all been there. Our hero’s girlfriend dumps him in the first scene of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and his misery and heartache, while comically extreme, is not far removed from the real thing. Segel is like the Ghost of Breakups Past, and the only response, for anyone who has ever been there, is to recognize that state, squirm a little and then crack up laughing.

Segel’s previous work has been confined to small roles in movies and tv shows, but he has a quality in this film characteristic of a lot of actors who’ve gone on to major success: He seems familiar already, as if he’s always been there. In addition, he shows expert timing in this film, as well as a willingness to put himself on the line, emotionally and physically. Kristen Bell does as much as she can with the somewhat thankless role as Sarah, and Mila Kunis is winning as the radiantly reasonable hotel clerk who takes pity on poor Peter. Two members of the Apatow stock company appear in smaller roles, Paul Rudd as a mentally burnt-out surf instructor and Jonah Hill as the hotel waiter. The movie’s major surprise is Russell Brand as Aldous, the rock star. Instead of a comic abstraction, Aldous is presented with some complexity and sympathy, and he’s played to comic perfection by Brand, who’s a welcome discovery.

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 penis, it’s his heart.

……sorry dude. Backhanded compliment, I know.