Sunday, May 25, 2008


Forgetting Sarah Marshall is a kinder, gentler version of the Judd Apatow raunchfest comedies that have become the standard by which all adult comedies are now made. The boundaries of acceptable language and good taste are still being pushed, but the heart that the Apatow brand swears is at the center of every successive film is even bigger here…way more apparent than in the just-plain-filthy Knocked Up. In its own way, this film might even have a bigger heart than Superbad, which still resorted to degradation humor a little too often. And if it doesn’t have a bigger heart than The 40-Year-Old Virgin, it at least has a more generous and understanding mind—as in, there are more than two complex and interesting characters in the film.

Such a development comes as quite a shock, given the sort of boys-are-flawed-and-that-makes-them-great stories that Apatow has all but copyrighted. As funny and sometimes even groundbreaking as Apatow’s reign as comedy writer/producer king has been, there has always been a mean streak to his material, like he is so pleased with himself for overcoming the system that he delights a little too much in his raunchiness. In Forgetting Sarah Marshall, writer/star Jason Segel has used the Apatow clout but freed himself from the complete Apatow influence…the humor is still bawdy and very funny, but the script is about 50 degrees more respectful to women and to humanity in general.

Segel plays Peter, a musician who scores a cheesy nighttime crime drama headlined by his girlfriend, the uber-celebrity Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell). But Peter receives a rude awakening when Sarah returns home only to break up with him. Broken-hearted and lonely, Peter decides to go on vacation to Hawaii in order to, per the title, forget Sarah Marshall. Once he arrives, he meets a fiery new friend in hotel employee Rachel (Mila Kunis), but also discovers that Sarah is vacationing on the same resort…with her new boyfriend, a ridiculous British pop sensation.

The set-up is pretty simple, but once all the pieces are in place, Segel’s script allows the characters to each learn something about each other and about themselves. It would be obvious for Peter to fall for Rachel…but their relationship is not handled in an obvious way. Similarly, it is a cute concept for Peter to just happen to vacation on the same resort as his dreaded ex…but as the layers are peeled away, we find that there is more to Sarah—and to Peter himself—than we first realized. This is a film that understands the responsibilities and pitfalls of relationships, and that finds humor in understated, unpredictable ways.

So, where does Forgetting Sarah Marshall rank in the Apatow Era? It is certainly better than Knocked Up (I will never be able to fully embrace such a well-meaning but ultimately very wrong-headed film), and there is a sensitivity here that topples even Virgin’s. As a complete package, it is not as great as Superbad, basically because there something that still seems lightweight about Marshall, like for all its heart, there isn’t a whole lot of substance to act as the film’s foundation. A lot of that has to do with the fact that first-time director Nick Stoller doesn’t know how to play many of the dramatic moments. He is probably even a notch above Judd Apatow himself in the directing department, but his skills at this point don’t do the material any favors.

On a similar note, the joke the film has already become famous for—the quick glimpses of Segel’s penis—may be one of the film’s defining images for as long as it is in existence, but for me, it is its least successful element. It’s not that I take issue with a film showing a naked phallus…in point of fact, I am all for a film that pushes that envelope in a Hollywood where showing male parts is somehow forbidden but showing female parts is routine. I take issue with the film’s own fear of showing too much—the "penis scenes" are edited with such care that the Money Shots only fill a few stray frames. As such, they don’t become part of the drama of the film, and are therefore not very funny. They become a stunt whereas they could have been a classic comedic moment.

All of these issues keep Forgetting Sarah Marshall from being a bonafide classic of the genre. But flawed as it sometimes is, the film is not simply more of the same from Apatow and Co. It is really a breath of fresh air—funny but truly sweet, poignant without ringing false. There is a maturity to this film that is lacking from a lot of Apatow’s work…it is not perfect, but it understands humanity in an engaging, humorous, and effecting way.

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