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Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008) Print E-mail
Friday, 18 April 2008
“Forgetting Sarah Marshall” is another movie from producer Judd Apatow; it’s a blend of raunchy sexual humor and good-natured warmth, like “40 Year Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up,” and others from Apatow’s slate. It’s not as good as those, but it has its moments; it plays fair with its characters and the audience. It’s reasonably funny, but has an overall blandness that keeps it from taking off comedically.

Once again, a kind of slacker dude, getting along in life without making much headway, has a major crisis. Peter Bretter (Jason Segal, from “How I Met Your Mother”) is a Hollywood composer working on “Crime Scene,” the by-the-book police series starring his attractive girlfriend Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell). He crawls out of bed in his somewhat messy but handsome Hollywood home, pours a huge bowl of cereal, and sits down to watch gossip shows. He’s a bit annoyed to see Sarah on the show, apparently on a date with British rock star Aldous Snow (Russel Brand).

He’s more upset when Sarah drops by to regretfully tell him that after five and a half years, it’s all over between them. Peter’s stunned, horrified, incredulous; he drops his towel (he was taking a shower) and we all get to see his wang. We see it several times. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s a mystery to me why Apatow is determined to wipe out that particular movie barrier. (There was a clearly-visible penis in “Walk Hard,” too, but it didn’t belong to one of the stars.)

Peter has a tendency to break into shuddering sobs, embarrassing Sarah. She’s not a bad person, she’s just a young person, and a burgeoning (she hopes) star; she’s moving on. Peter begins moaning, mostly on computer-video links, to his half-brother Brian (Bill Hader), who’s happily married himself. Peter immediately starts hopping into bed with a series of unsatisfactory hookups, finally decides to get away from it all.

He heads for Oahu’s lavish Turtle Bay Resort, on the North Shore. Attractive desk clerk Rachel Jansen (Mila Kunis) is sympathetic to his plight, allowing him to stay free for a few days in a lavish currently-unbooked suite—ordinarily it’s six grand a night. But just then along comes Sarah in a teeny weeny pink bikini, accompanied by affable but self-involved Aldous. Peter moans on the phone to Brian, but decides to stay on anyway.
He gets along with a pudgy hotel worker (Jonah Hill, an Apatow regular), who wants to get his demo CD to Snow. And surfing instructor Chuck (Paul Rudd, another familiar Apatow face), who seems like the surf board has hit his head a few too many times, is also friendly enough. Even better, so is Rachel. They go to a locals-type bar (clearly based on Breakers in Hale’iwa) where she induces Peter to sing a number from his long-gestating Dracula operetta/musical. (He seems to be a horror movie fan; his Hollywood home has posters from the original “Little Shop of Horrors,” “Return of Dracula,” Bert I. Gordon’s “Tormented” and Lon Chaney Sr.’s “Unholy 3,” among others.)

She also takes him to nearby spectacular La’ie Point, where she promptly leaps into the surf, then persuades him to take the plunge himself. (The script wants us to believe they had to hike a long way to get to the point; the scene takes place about 30 feet from the parking lot.) Occasionally interrupted by encounters with Sarah and Snow, Peter and Rachel seem to be falling for each other.

There’s not much more to the plot than that. Occasionally there are scenes about newlyweds Darald (Jack McBrayer) and Wyoma (Maria Thayer) and their sexual incompatibility, but these are intrusive, uninteresting and not very funny. McBrayer is essentially playing his “30 Rock” character, who’s best in small, select doses. We do see him and his wife humping away under the sheets, and Sarah and Snow humping away (in many amazing positions) on top of the sheets, but there’s a perfunctory air to these sex scenes. They’re occasionally reasonably funny, but they’re just decoration; they don’t add anything to the stories.

Star Jason Segel also wrote “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” basing it on an epic romantic breakup of his own. It’s well-observed and reasonable, but the characters are, for the most part, not as interesting as they might have been. On the other hand, in most romantic comedies involving couple breakups, the one who broke off the relationship is usually depicted as more or less heartless, the villain (or villainess) of the piece. The one the story focuses on does have some learning to do; the movie us usually about their wising-up process.

So it is here, but in this case, the breaker—Sarah—is not depicted as a bitch. She’s self-centered (but she’s an actress), and clearly drawn to Snow mostly because he’s sexy than because she likes him. And he’s very different from Peter, something of a plus. But we also learn that she worked hard to try to repair her failing relationship with Peter—but the jerk didn’t notice. Furthermore, Snow himself isn’t a preening, self-obsessed jackass; he’s a womanizer, true enough, and an egotist, but he’s basically a decent sort; eventually, even he and Peter get along reasonably well.

Never having watched “How I Met Your Mother,” Jason Segel was basically unknown to me. He’s not a leading man type, nor is he clownish; he’s a regular guy, big, a bit pudgy, but he’s bright and clever, despite his tendency to bawl like a girl. He’s given himself a good but not showy role, but unfortunately hasn’t made Peter all that interesting. Basically realistic, yes, but to hold our attention securely, Peter needed to be a bit more colorful.

This could be said for both of the women as well. We rarely see Sarah Marshall being just a regular person; we usually find her in the midst of a minor (or major) crisis. Generally, she’s reacting to someone else, rarely is what she does the reason for the scene. Kristen Bell has been very busy over the last few years; she was Veronica Mars in the series of that title, the gossip girl in THAT series, and is still a regular on “Heroes.” Here, she seems much younger than in that series, more childlike; her performance in “Forgetting” is clear and precise, but we never really like Sarah Marshall. I guess it’s enough that we don’t dislike her.

Mila Kunis has been a busy voice actor for several years, notably on “Family Guy.” It’s a lot better that we can see her. She’s at least as gorgeous as Bell, with striking eyes and a lively face. Russel Brand, who plays Aldous Snow, is a British stand-up comic (did you know there WERE British stand-up comics?), and is a lot of fun here. Way down deep inside where it counts, Aldous Snow is shallow—and he knows it. Being shallow doesn’t bother him; it enables him to keep moving on.

Nicholas Stoller cowrote the Jim Carrey “Fun with Dick and Jane” with Judd Apatow, and makes his directorial debut here. The movie is mostly relaxed and casual, with nothing very inventive about the direction; it’s competent and professional without being anything like inspired.

O’ahu is one of the most beautiful places on Earth, but you don’t see very much of it in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” Almost the entire movie takes place on the grounds of the Turtle Bay Resort, which has a prime location at the very tip of the top of the island. Beaches stretch away on both sides, there are lots of coconut palms and well-tended lawns. But there’s a sameness to this location; the movie crew was right there—surely they could have gone to a few more of the beautiful locations available on O’ahu.
There’s a lot of product placement in the movie; not only is the name “Turtle Bay Resort” prominent in many of the backgrounds, but Hawaiian Airlines gets plugged as well. I suppose all this shilling helped pay for the movie.

But they didn’t really need it. This movie is likely to please audiences in large numbers. The scenery is beautiful (if limited), the cast is beautiful, the situation is one familiar to all too many people, and the characters are likeable, if not strongly drawn. “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” itself is likeable—if not particularly distinctive.

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