Most conversations about Forgetting Sarah Marshall -- the new Judd Apatow-produced comedy about a devastating breakup -- are going to start with the penis shot. Sure, there have been willies in the movies before -- hell, there have been dongs in Apatow productions before (see Walk Hard). But a johnson this prominently featured, and in a mainstream romantic comedy? It breaks new ground. And not only is it funny, it's the perfect visual representation of what a guy goes through when he gets dumped. The film's star, Jason Segel, is stripped bare literally and figuratively -- exposed, embarrassed, emasculated. It's a comedy moment for the history books. I just wish I could say the rest of the film is as bold, as brave, as ... ballsy as that penis.
Oh, don't get me wrong. Sarah Marshall is a very funny movie. But its faults -- its sagginess, its tendency to let improvisation roll past the point of laughter, its relationships that often don't ring true -- are what separate this Judd Apatow production from a Judd Apatow film.
Segel plays Peter Bretter, a television composer (pretty sweet, high-paying job for a character who is painted as a slacker, no?) who is dumped by his girlfriend, Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell). Peter takes a Hawaiian vacation to deal with the pain, and winds up at the exact same resort as Sarah and her new boyfriend (Russell Brand). Already rolling your eyes? Hey, a lot of great comedies rely on some pretty unbelievable coincidences -- you're best to not over-think the setup here. Would you also believe that the very first girl Peter meets in Hawaii (Mila Kunis) is sexy, supportive, sweet, and single? You better, or you're not going to have much fun.
On the island, Peter meets an assortment of comedians, including Jonah Hill (not playing Angry Screaming Guy for once, and it's a welcome change), Paul Rudd (not playing himself for once, and not getting near as many laughs as usual), and Jack McBrayer (who makes up for Rudd's misses). Brand is a real hoot, although his utterly ridiculous, larger-than-life character makes it difficult to relate to Peter's heartbreak. And Peter talks throughout the film to his brother-in-law back home, played by Bill Hader, who steals the film despite being an unbelievably unnecessary part of it.
As is generally the case with these R-rated romantic comedies, the female roles are woefully underwritten. Kunis' character is standard rom-com Dream Woman, and she makes little impression. Bell is given even less to do, and I honestly don't know how to describe the role she is playing. She has no real characteristics to speak of, kind of a problem when...y'know the movie is named after her! Both women are easy on the eyes, sure, but it's high time the male-driven comedy world learns to toss some laughs to the ladies.
The film is nicely directed by Nicholas Stoller (read my interview with him here), making his directorial debut. Stoller could have easily shaved twenty minutes from the running time, but the film's rambling nature is part of its charm. Segel wrote the script, and for all its imperfections, there are more laugh-out-loud moments here than in any comedy yet released this year. There's not much story to latch on to, but there are moments -- the Dracula musical subplot, the CSI parodies. the discussion of Sarah's film career -- that border on classic, and put Sarah Marshall in a much more creative and special bracket than most movies of this type.
And yet, I wasn't completely blown away, and I can tell you exactly why: Jason Segel isn't a movie star. "People said the same thing about Steve Carell prior to 40 Year-Old Virgin," you say. "Neither was Seth Rogen before Knocked Up!" you yell. True, but the difference is that Rogen and Carell proved the naysayers wrong. Those guys brought very distinctive comic personalities to the table, and you felt a real sense of discovery watching them strut their stuff at center stage. Segel simply doesn't have that star quality, that special something that sets him apart. He's likable enough here, but I think the film stands as proof that simply being part of the Apatow universe doesn't mean you are compelling enough to carry a feature film. (Let this be a warning to anyone considering McLovin': The Motion Picture.)
Sarah Marshall is not a home run, but it's certainly a triple -- and in these dark days for film comedy, a triple is more than enough. It's a nice blend of good laughs and sweet moments in a beautiful locale. I just wish the whole thing wasn't so easily...well...forgotten.
For another take on the film, check out Scott's review from SXSW.