Judge Daryl Loomis just went from six to midnight.
If God was a city planner, he would not put a playground next to a sewage system.
A decade ago, I would have laughed at someone if they told me that men would be waiting impatiently for the new blockbuster romantic comedy to arrive. Yet, here sits Judd Apatow (The 40-Year-Old Virgin) with a string of production and directorial successes in a genre that has, historically, been marketed exclusively toward women. By filthing up the material and supplying endless strings of quotable one-liners, men now have a cinematic opportunity to handle emotions that they have always sublimated through lots of explosions and gunfire. Forgetting Sarah Marshall, with strong writing and performances from both lead characters and supporting roles, is a hilarious addition to the Apatow brand that also manages to contain sweet kernels of emotional truth.
Facts of the Case
Peter (Jason Segel, Knocked Up, who also penned the screenplay), a struggling young composer, scores the ominous tones for the hit TV series Crime Scene: Scene of the Crime, starring Billy Baldwin and Peter's beautiful superstar girlfriend Sarah Marshall (Kristin Bell, Veronica Mars). Sarah shows up at his house one day as Peter is getting out of the shower. He greets her excitedly in his towel but, instead of the afternoon delight he hoped for, she dumps him for another guy and his ego drops faster than his towel. Devastated, he heads to Hawaii for some peace and quiet but, instead, finds that Sarah has come to the same resort to cavort with her new beau, ultra-famous lead singer of Infant Sorrow, Aldous Snow (Russell Brand). How far does a guy have to go to forget his pain?
I've always had a hard time relating to the lead actors in traditional romantic comedies and I'm not alone. The Hugh Grants and Richard Geres of the movie world, with their dashing looks, lucrative jobs, and impeccable hair, are next to impossible to portray as everymen, no matter what plot contrivances are shoehorned in to make it so. Forgetting Sarah Marshall works, beyond the raunchy humor (though that is certainly here), because Peter is so relatable. He's the same kind of lovable loser that is stock and trade of Apatow's productions. Audiences can connect with a doughy, goofy guy with a decent job that he hates. He has the woman of his dreams by his side, which helps to keep it tolerable. With her gone, however, and in his position of having to write music while watching her scenes, things get bad quickly. From personal experience, under slightly different circumstances, this is a sickening feeling that can't be rectified by quitting his job. Dropping out would only make his life more depressing. He built his life around Sarah; now, it's crashing down on top of him and only he can save it.
So, he bolts. In predictable fashion, he goes on vacation to the same resort that Sarah does (one of quite a number of very predictable elements of the story), but they use that predictability to turn the situation on its head. You can feel Peter's desperation as he flails around thinking of things to say that won't make him sound like an idiot or a stalker, but there's nothing cool or collected about him. Luckily, Rachel (Mila Kunis, That '70s Show), the lovely and helpful hotel clerk, is there to bail him out and restore a little dignity to him. Now, with his ex in eyeshot the whole time, Peter can go about forgetting Sarah Marshall with the help of Rachel and a host of supporting—and supportive—characters. Without spoiling any big laughs, so ensues the screwball hijinks that fall into a classic tradition, albeit with far dirtier jokes.
The story is great, relatively believable and full of heart, but it's also formulaic, not just of the other Apatow productions, but of romantic comedies in general. The performances, however, are spot on across the board and make it easy to forget that we've seen much of this before. Jason Segel plays the guy-next-door very well but, more importantly he displays impeccable comic timing and a charisma above his mediocre looks. His skills as a writer and an improviser are on full display, with one-liners and insults coming fast and furious while keeping himself sympathetic. Kristen Bell is an adequate Sarah Marshall, but her character doesn't have many of the endearing qualities that make the other characters so much fun. Whether it is the actress or how the character is written, I can't say (I have little to no experience with Bell's television work). She works as the antagonist but, when she has to try to redeem herself, I can't quite buy it.
The two love interests, though, really make the film special. British stand-up comic Russell Brand is absolutely fantastic, fully embodying the role of Aldous Snow and stealing every scene he's in. On the one hand he is the picture of the over-sexed, under-brained prima donna rock star. Just as you start to really hate him, however, he pulls out a sympathetic act or a line of relative wisdom and you start to see that there is an actual person under all the blouses, teased hair, and make-up. Mila Kunis has certainly done the best work of her career in this film. She is supremely attractive but, much more than that, she is supremely sweet and sympathetic, the ideal for a guy like Peter. If her comic lines don't match the laughs of her peers, her non-verbal communication is outstanding. It is easy to watch her melt and look away, obviously falling in love with Peter without having to say a word. Far from her "Jackie" TV character, she is lovable, intelligent, and (mostly) calm, grounding Peter in reality no matter how far off he's gone. Seldom is a character as easy to fall in love with as Rachel. These two steal the show, but the supporting cast is generally great. From Apatow regulars like Jonah Hill (Superbad) as the disturbed waiter and Aldous Snow worshipper to Paul Rudd (Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy) as the awful surf teacher to newcomers like Jack McBrayer (30 Rock) as the confused honeymooner on a quest for the mythical clitoris and DaVonne McDonald as the puppet loving bartender, each is memorable in its way.
The direction by first-timer Nicholas Stoller is unobtrusive and serves the story very well. There are few stylistic flourishes, but some very nice framing of scenes that give a good sense of the mood of particular scenes. While Forgetting Sarah Marshall is not a musical, there are a number of songs. Four are performed in full, and I appreciate that the actors, Jason Segel in two songs and Russell Brand in the others, perform the songs themselves on camera; no cutaways to hands playing the piano here, these guys know what they're doing, at least a little bit. With the songs and plenty of clips from Crime Scene: Scene of the Crime, the film moves very well, changing tone and style, winging through its two hours much faster than could be expected. The ad campaign and the two blogs that preceded the film add just the right level of post-modernism to what is, all in all, an intelligent and excellent film.
Universal has done a fine job with their 3-disc release of Forgetting Sarah Marshall. The anamorphic widescreen image looks great, reference quality, with brilliantly deep colors and zero transfer errors. The 5.1 surround sound is also quite good, booming in the surround channels and subwoofer, but never conflicting with the music and dialog in the front. The extras total about 90 minutes, not including the very funny commentary with the director and members of the crew. On the first two discs, we have deleted and extended scenes, alternate takes of improvised scenes (often much funnier and raunchier), and cuts from Sarah's television show (some of the funniest stuff on the set). On top of it all, we have a few extra bits with Aldous Snow doing things unrelated to the movie, which may be initial marketing for an upcoming spinoff film Get Him to the Greek starring Brand in a reprisal of his role. The third disc is the, to me, wholly unnecessary digital copy of the film. Outside of this pointless use of plastic, this is a great set worthy of the film.
In the end, what makes or breaks a comedy is if it's funny, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall is hilarious. Sure, it is an unfettered male fantasy, but I'll take this kind of male fantasy over the car chase and explosion kind any day.
The film is fantastic; just as good, if not better, than any of Apatow's productions to date. Not guilty.
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• Audio Commentary with cast and crew
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