Thursday, April 17, 2008

Forgetting Sarah Marshall: Mildly memorable

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008) • View trailer for Forgetting Sarah Marshall
Three stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, nudity and sexual content
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.17.08
Buy DVD: Forgetting Sarah Marshall • Buy Blu-Ray: Forgetting Sarah Marshall [Blu-ray]

As guilty pleasures go, this one's pretty funny.

Occasionally tasteless and frequently vulgar, but undeniably funny.
The resort isn't that large, so this result was inevitable: Peter (Jason Segel,
center) and new companion Rachel (Mila Kunis, left) arrive at the hotel
restaurant at the same time as Peter's ex-girlfriend, Sarah (Kristen Bell) and her
new boyfriend, Aldous (Russell Brand). Worse yet, only one table is
available. And if the women are looking daggers at each other, that, too, is

Forgetting Sarah Marshall is another scattershot burlesque from Judd Apatow and Shauna Robertson (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Superbad), the producers who seem determined to build an empire on romantic disaster comedies, the way John Hughes cornered the sensitive teen market back in the 1980s.

I'm not sure this is a particularly lofty goal, but it seems to be working for them; one cannot argue with box-office results.

And, truth be told, Apatow and Robertson's films, for all their crassness, boast several key elements wholly absent from the similar oeuvre of, say, the Farrelly brothers (who most recently uncorked their gawdawful remake of The Heartbreak Kid). Apatow's suffering male protagonists always remain sympathetic, despite their lesser qualities, and they try to do right by the women in their lives (even while frequently screwing things up).

Most important, though, the women in Apatow/Robertson comedies aren't mere sex toys, nor are they crippled by belittling and offensive character traits. They're just as sensitive and sympathetic, if equally inclined to make a bad situation worse. (Honestly, watching a Farrelly brothers relationship train wreck, I always get the impression the filmmakers hate the fair sex.)

Recall the hilarious, often misplaced dignity that Steve Carell brought to The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and you'll have a good sense of what to expect in Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

The star this time is Jason Segel, one of Apatow's familiar repertory players, going all the way back to TV's Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared. Segel also wrote the script, which he clearly fashioned to his own strengths.

He plays Peter Bretter, a conflicted musician who has made the most of a six-year relationship with way-famous Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell, late of the still lamented Veronica Mars), star of a successful TV series titled Crime Scene: Scene of the Crime.

The occasional glimpses we get of this obvious riff on the CSI franchise, as Bell and on-camera co-star William Baldwin wisecrack their way through various ghastly murder investigations, are a stitch.

Unfortunately, the inclined-to-be-mopey Jason has no inkling, as this film begins, that Sarah's about to dump him. She doesn't give much of a reason — that'll come later — and Jason's life is left in shambles. To make matters worse, he supplies the music for her TV show, which means he'll likely still bump into her in a professional capacity.

Attempts to re-enter the dating pool are various shades of disastrous; despite his obviously healthy sexual appetite, Jason isn't shallow enough to be satisfied by one-night stands. Besides, he's still pining over his lost love.

Efforts to connect with his creative muse also fail. Although a good-paying gig, supplying a repetitively ominous underscore for Crime Scene: Scene of the Crime isn't terribly fulfilling; Jason's secret passion has been a long-gestating rock musical. About Dracula. Which he hopes to stage with puppets.

But breaking into uncontrolled crying jags is somewhat counterproductive, when trying to write sensitive music about vampires.

Seeking a total break, and recalling that he and Sarah frequently talked about taking a vacation in Hawaii, Jason impulsively crosses the Pacific and checks into a luxury hotel. And, drat the luck, discovers that Sarah has done the same.

Worse yet, she's in the company of the new guy in her life: the smug, deliberately pretentious Aldous Snow (Russell Brand), a New Age-y British rock star trying to mass-market his belief that spontaneous copulation could cure all the world's ills.

Brand, one of this film's strongest assets, is very, very funny. Aldous is grotesquely over the top, but Brand's performance is so resolutely sincere and straight-faced that you can't help but laugh at his fortune-cookie philosophies, each more ridiculous than the last. I was reminded of Bill Nighy's aging rocker, Billy Mack, in 2003's Love, Actually; Aldous is the sort of guy Billy Mack might have been at the heyday of his career.

And Aldous' devastatingly filthy songs add to the hilarity.

Anyway, the obviously awkward situation is rescued by resort employee Rachel (Mila Kunis), who saves Jason's pride by clandestinely checking him into the hotel's most expensive suite. The gesture of kindness isn't lost on our hero, whose interest in this sympathetic woman soon becomes more than casual.

Alas, the resort isn't that large, and Sarah — and Aldous — are everywhere Jason goes. As for how all this will play out ... well, that's for you to find out.

Segel makes a suitably lovable, lovelorn galumph of a guy: utterly unable to accept good advice and do what's best for his own peace of mind. Peter is guy-style slovenly, but not distastefully so; his habit of eating an entire box of dry cereal from a stainless steel salad bowl, for example, is oddly endearing.

Segel slumps and shambles from one scene to the next, a morose puppy in dire need of a new mistress.

Bell, on the one hand amusingly riffing her resourceful gal detective from Veronica Mars, is note-perfect as the iconic Former Girlfriend: cute, perky and (thanks to the Hawaiian environment) underdressed. Bell also gets the film's strongest dramatic moment — the "why I broke up with you" speech — and she sells it persuasively.

Kunis credibly builds on her character's initial act of kindness; Rachel warms to this despondent stranger at just the right speed. She loosens up and gradually comes to admire Peter's more positive qualities, but only on her terms; the uncertainty adds a pleasant note of sexual tension to the chemistry shared by Segel and Kunis.

The story is peppered with colorful supporting characters, several played by other Apatow repertory members. Some of these sidebar individuals add to the film; others do not. Jack McBrayer rather overplays his scenes as a sexually repressed newlywed — a good little Christian boy — unprepared for the randy behavior of his bride. It's a good running gag, but it requires more subtlety and acting skill than McBrayer possesses.

And Jonah Hill fares quite badly as a resort waiter who stalks Aldous; Hill's line delivery is so awkward and unconvincing that it feels as though he's making up the words as he goes.

On the other hand, Paul Rudd is a stitch as a stoner surfing instructor named Chuck — who prefers his Hawaiian name, Kunu — and Da'Vone McDonald is priceless as Dwayne, a transplanted South Central native turned bartender and amateur ichthyologist. Both recognize the value of underplaying their individual quirks.

The inconsistent acting results betray the inexperience of first-time director Nicholas Stoller. Actors with a strong sense of their characters — fortunately, that includes all four stars — seem to survive Stoller's uneven touch; those requiring more guidance are left adrift.

Segel's screenplay is for the most part coherent and progresses logically from one scene to the next, although a few ill-advised sight gags and tin-eared exchanges of dialogue fall flat. On the other hand, he nails a few really sweet gestures: Rachel's initial act of salvation; a throwaway moment where Peter explains why even eating dry cereal makes him pine for Sarah; and the climactic manner by which Peter demonstrates his growing affection for Rachel.

And while I understand the point behind Segel's eye-opening full-frontal shots — they do, indeed, emphasize his character's vulnerability — they're so unexpected and jarring that they tend to rip us out of the story.

(Granted, that's an American movie bias. I wouldn't think twice about an identical scene in a French film; indeed, it would feel appropriate.)

Forgetting Sarah Marshall certainly won't win any awards for originality, but the cast makes the most of the material. And the laughs come frequently enough for me to prescribe it as a perfect antidote for a really, really bad day at the office.

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