Friday, April 18, 2008

"Forgetting Sarah Marshall" -- * * * 1/2

A romantic comedy that's genuinely hilarious, as well as seeming to come from a real place of heartbreak and experience, Nicholas Stoller's "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" has been touted as the next film out of the seemingly never-ending Judd Apatow canon (I love the man, but he really shouldn't be getting the credit for movies he neither writes nor directs), though the real acclaim should go to its star and screenwriter, Jason Segel. He's crafted a film that's as raunchy and genital-obsessed as its pedigree would indicate (it's rare a movie features multiple tittyfucking jokes, as this one does) but it's nicely balanced with a sweetness and sincerity that really works. I would easily recommend it simply for being very, very funny, and consistently so, but it wins extra points for actually making an effort to develop its characters, and mine its subject of romantic agony for just as much subtle insight as laughs.

Our hero, underachiever Peter Bretter (Segel) is a composer of the background "tones" for TV-show "Crime Scene: Scene of the Crime," which stars his gorgeous actress girlfriend Sarah Marshall (Kristin Bell). Though perfectly content with living in the background-- he's mostly known as the guy who holds her purse at premieres-- he's taken aback one day when Sarah announces that she's dumping him. Initially dealing with the break-up by having bouts of random sex and crying non-stop (often during said sex), Peter eventually heeds his brother's (the truly gifted Bill Hader) advice to take a trip; naturally, he picks Hawaii, as it's the place he and Sarah always talked about going to. Unfortunately for Peter, Sarah's had the same idea, and in a bit of contrivance, they end up staying in the same hotel. Making matters worse, Sarah is on holiday with her new instant-rebound boyfriend, British lothario rocker Aldous Snow (Russell Brand), and Peter seems to run into them wherever he goes. Luckily, our protagonist begins to click with the hotel receptionist Rachel (Mila Kunis), recovering from a heartbreak of her own, as he interacts with various characters around the island and trying to set the film's title into motion.

Rather than tossing off a quick succession of scattershot gags, which even the funniest comedies can sometimes be guilty of, "Forgetting" is especially well-written and offers moments of hilarity that simultaneously serve to enrich the characters as well as the story. The set-pieces (such as a fresh, funny twist on the lately-overused sexual encounter montage) are actually hilarious and worthy of their build-ups, but the quick, bizarre gags (the prepping of a pig for luau) and little character moments (Peter's cosmopolitan-induced impersonations of the "Sex & the City" gals) are just as funny; it sounds cliche, but there's rarely a minute without one sizable laugh. The raunchy one-liners are predictably quotable, ranging from the bluntly stupid (a character ponders about a redhead, "I wonder if the carpet matches her pubes") to the clever (upon being told he doesn't need to put his "P in a V" to get over Sarah, Peter responds "No, I need to B my L on somebody's T's").

One of Aldous's songs, "Inside of You," is given a live performance, as well as played over the closing credits, and after enough listens-- it's currently the set song on my MySpace page-- I'm convinced it's a truly great piece of music. Cleverly written, and striking just the right balance between sincere and creepily taking the double-entendre too far ("Inside of you, I could cross this desert plane; Inside of you, I can hear you scream my name"), it's representative of the level of thought and detail put into the jokes here; I won't even get into the climactic performance of a musical following in the footsteps of "Dance of the Vampires" and "Lestat." There's a four-way 'tables have turned' dinner scene between Peter, Rachel, Sarah and Aldous at about the 75-minute mark that may not be a "big" set-piece that everyone will be buzzing about, but for my money, it's the best scene in the movie. Focusing on the interplay and back-and-forth between the newly happy Peter and Rachel and squabbling, slowly-crumbling Sarah and Aldous, it's a truly great sequence in terms of construction, dialogue and pacing. It goes on for a little while past where you think it would, but it's nearly perfect, features all four leads at their comedic peaks, and will have you struggling to hear much of the dialogue over laughter.

While the movie never gets overly serious, it's made stronger by the fact that it seems to be grounded in the real world, and actually has some substantive things to say about relationships. As jokey as it gets, the themes are sincere and it seems as if the screenplay was written as a manifestation of past relationships and/or heartbreak (it's rumored to be based on Segal's break-up with his "Freaks and Geeks" co-star Linda Cardellini, though the actor denies it). The romance element is integral, and never feels shoehorned in to appeal to those in the audience with ovaries. Also, Segel and Stoller are unusually adept at character development, often not the strongest suit of romantic comedies. Both Sarah and Aldous could have easily been one-note antagonists, but the screenplay takes great pains to make sure we at least know where they're coming from, if not making them entirely sympathetic. The crowd at my screening was vocally angry about one of Peter's decisions in the third act, which I think is a testament to the fact that Segel actually makes you care about these characters

Segel is no one's idea of a leading man (he's borderline repellant to look at), and rather than try to subvert those expectations, he plays into them and gives us a different sort of leading man than we expect. Filled with self-loathing and prone to crying fits, Peter the type of character it would have been intolerable to spend 105 minutes with had he not been played right, and the actor/writer turns him into a guy we genuinely like and root for. Against all odds, we love him even when he's being crass (e.g: that pearl necklace joke that amazingly got included in the green-band trailer) or showing us his unshapely nude body (more on that later). We rarely, if ever, see our leading men this vulnerable on screen, but Segal pulls it off while always keeping us with him at every turn.

Kunis has the least interesting character of the four leads, but she has a relaxed way about her that makes us believe that this girl would be interested in someone so far down the attractiveness totem pole. While most reviews seem to just go the "She's beautiful" route when talking about her performance, she happens to have a naturalism with the funny lines that never make it feel like she's overreaching, often a problem with actresses in stock "pretty girl" roles. It does take a little bit of effort to look past Bell's looks (she's gorgeous, if disturbingly skinny), but once I did, I was able to see why so many (gay and straight alike) fanboys were smitten with her on "Veronica Mars." She has some very funny moments here, but her strongest scene is when she confronts Peter about why they broke up and she briefly, effectively makes us see things from her point of view. Though initially Sarah seems like more of a device than a character, Bell refuses to let her become a caricature.

The movie is clearly Segel's coming-out party more than anyone else's, but the unequivocal scene-stealer is Brand as the sober-alcoholic, ruthlessly honest Snow. Getting off the best lines in the movie, while creating a broad yet complex character, Brand has pitch-perfect delivery (he's supposedly a hugely popular comic in the U.K.) and pulls off Aldous's oscillation from asshole to cool guy, and back again, just as one side is starting to rear it's head. We never quite like the sexually-open (his monogamy policy is "lose yourself in fuck") Aldous, but there's something admirable about his lack of bullshit and acknowledgment of his flaws; I could easily watch a spin-off movie or TV series about this guy.

Literally every review or article about "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" has included mention of Segal's decision to go full-frontal (more than once!) here, as well they should. I've long been an advocate for more full-frontal male nudity in comedies for the simple reason that penises are just funny. While female nudity can be used to comic effect as well, there's often an artistic, tasteful beauty about the vagina that just isn't so with the dong. Penises are weird, ugly-looking dangling appendages that almost instinctively provoke laughter when seen in the right context (and not just the small ones). Last year's Apatow-written "Walk Hard" featured a cock poking into the frame as a pitch-perfect sight gag, but what Segel does here is more than that; he gives Peter's nudity a surprising resonance. In the movie's opening minutes, Sarah catches Peter by surprise on his way out of the shower, and when ascertaining that she's dumping him, he drops the towel and remains nude for the entirety of the scene. While briefly using his starkness to attempt some semblance of an upper hard and take control of the situation (when prompted by Sarah to put some clothes on, he refuses), the screenplay utilizes it as the ultimate literalization of his vulnerability in the situation. It's completely hilarious, shocking, and weirdly moving.

A common complaint by some, including me (though "Superbad" is the only film it really bothered me in), of the Apatow-produced fare, is that they suffer from a bit of a case of bloat, and play like extended director's cuts where the filmmakers couldn't bear to part with jokes they liked, rather than appropriately-edited work. Or, as it's known in certain circles, the 'it's a little long...' dilemma. "Forgetting," truth be told, continues the excess material trend that plagued the other films, even if it does run nearly a half hour shorter than the 134-minute "Knocked Up." Virtually all the moments involving Paul Rudd's surfing instructor Chuck/Kunu, Jack McBrayer's Mormon newlywed and Jonah Hill's Aldous-stalking waiter, while funny, don't really need to be here. At only an hour and 45 minutes, the film is well-paced enough that it's not likely to bother most viewers, but some may note that the minute count could have easily been 90-to-95.

Like "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up," the interplay here has a loose enough feel to create an air of spontaneity, but it doesn't go off on nearly as many tangents as those films, and seems a bit more structured and logical. Though not as filthy as "Superbad" or as touching as "Knocked Up," "Marshall" has a similar comic tone to the rest of the Apatow ouvre while also clearly establishing its own comedic sensibility. I don't know how well it (or anything, for that matter) will hold up once "Iron Man" hits in two weeks, but the movie should still be a solid performer for Universal, with word-of-mouth likely to be excellent. The type of movie that incites repeat viewings and obnoxious quoting around college campuses, "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" is nonetheless completely entertaining, really really funny, and insightfully offers a unique, crude perspective on well-worn territory.


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