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Review: “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” (2008)

Jason Segel has a face made for break-up movies. Or just break-ups, period. Whether he’s warbling a serenade for the woman of his dreams (the notorious “Lady” scene in “Freaks and Geeks”) or crying naked in front of his just-became-ex-girlfriend, there’s a congenial openness to Segel’s face that is appealing. He may be an actor, but he looks like the down-to-earth sort who would wear Costco sweatpants, eat giant bowls of Fruit Loops in front of the TV and drink grocery store wine. This is a big reason why Segel’s labor of love and humor, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” is so enjoyable: it’s funny and perceptive without being pretentious, and it’s endearing but not mushy or overly sentimental. “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” is a realistic romantic comedy unafraid to let everything hang out … figuratively and literally.

Segel’s male perspective also gives the genre a welcome and refreshing twist. While so many rom-coms sing the “good woman done wrong” blues, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” offers a different tune. This time around it’s the nice guy who’s had his heart turned into a smooshed MoonPie. Peter (Segel) loves the blonde, petite and beautiful Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell, terrific), a high-profile actress. But there’s a problem: Sarah’s career has turned her life busy and exciting, while Peter is at a dead standstill. When Sarah, frustrated with his homebody attitude, dumps him (in the best break-up scene ever written), Peter’s whole world collapses. He turns wallowing into an art form. Finally, a miserable and slovenly Peter takes the advice of his stepbrother (Bill Hader) and flies off to Hawaii for a break. Enter Life Interruption No. 2: Peter ends up at the same hotel as Sarah … who is there with her new boyfriend, Aldous Snow (Russell Brand) … who is a rich, famous rock star and bonafide sex god in leather pants.

From this point on, Segel puts his own flourish on the romantic comedy formula, providing minor tweaks here and there and adding in a host of comical, unusual, even touching secondary characters. Peter does meet a girl, hotel concierge Rachel (Mila Kunis), but she is not a damsel waiting to be whisked away from her unhappy life. She’s also the antithesis of Sarah Marshall’s spoiled, self-absorbed diva-in-training: Rachel is funny, kind and content with her life. She coaxes Peter out of his drunken, weepy stupor, encourages him to take a few risks, pursue his odd dream — write a puppet rock opera about Dracula — and get on with his life. Kudos to Segel for writing a potential love interest who is no selfless savior type. He deserves some high-fives, too, for crafting minor characters who are as funny as they are interesting. Anxious newlywed Darald (Jack McBrayer) worries himself sick about his lack of sexual prowess. Paul Rudd plays against his usual hyper-sarcastic type as Chuck, a perpetually fried and apathetic surfing instructor who lives by his own slacker credo: “When life gives you lemons, just say ‘fuck the lemons’ and bail.” That’s fortune cookie wisdom at its most original. 

The real standout, and the clearest indicator that Segel wants to do things his own way, is Aldous Snow. In a less imaginative film, Aldous would be a sneering, six-packed villain of the vilest order, or a brainless moron to be ordered about; in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” he’s friendly, witty, charming and often quite insightful. Brand delivers the rocker’s many insights as only Russell Brand can: with a mix of bravado and cheek. He compares vacationing with the demanding Sarah to going on holiday with Joseph Goebbels, and when creepy fan Matthew (Jonah Hill) asks him if he’s listened to his demo, Brand’s retort is killer: “I was gonna listen to that, but then, um, I just carried on living my life.” In fact, Aldous — who later got his own movie, “Get Him to the Greek” — may be the most layered character in the film. Anyone who complains about the small female roles missed the point. “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” isn’t about women, much the same way “Sex and the City” wasn’t about men. Segel simply means to tell a personal and painful story from a male perspective, and he does — flaccid penis and all.

Grade: A-

8 Responses

  1. […] much as affection as everyone felt for Jason Segel’s Peter, the dumped schlub in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” there was no denying the real star was Russell Brand. The coiffure that suggests mental illness, […]

  2. Man, I liked this movie a lot. It was funny and had heart. The performance that really won me over was Mila Kunis. For me, this was her break-out proving that she had chops to be a credible actress. She was funny and showed a bit of dramatic elements and could be quite sweet.

    The whole film has some great one-liners as well as wonderful uses of the flashbacks to see how Peter’s relationship with Sarah Marshall disintegrated or how bad it really was at times.

  3. The film could have taken the easy way out, but it didn’t. Segel’s script didn’t point fingers and I really like that. Great rom-com.

    • @ Steven — I had Mila Kunis all wrong. I judged her based on her hideously annoying character from “That ’70s Show,” and I stupidly thought she couldn’t play anyone else. I was so, so wrong — and I’m glad! She’s exactly the kind of rom-com leading lady I adore: smart, funny, confident, with none of that “oh, rescue me from my weary life of singleness!” crap.

      @ Fitz — It took me many viewings to figure out what I liked so much about “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” and it was exactly what you said: Jason Segel could have copped out, gone mushy or melodramatic, but he didn’t. He kept things raw and funny and awkward. Segel himself has that kind of appeal.

  4. Until Bridesmaids — and I kept meaning to comment on your review but I swear I’m more attention deficit now than I was as a teenager — this was easily my favorite movie to come out of that vast Apatow machine (it’s still my favorite, only now Bridesmaids gives it a run for its money). Even with the Jack McBrayer and Paul Rudd character, I never feel like anyone is a total 2-D character. They all resemble people, even if a few of them are on the weirder side. And Segel plays it so honestly; this isn’t a stab at “the bitches” or one of the empty schlub-gets-the-hottie movies like the other Apatow-directed and/or -produced films. Sure, he gets MIla Kunis, but it feels so EARNED.

    The one thing I don’t like, though, is how Segel resolves Sarah Marshall. She has this moment of total vulnerability and desperation, and it ends with a thin punchline that veers too closely for laughing at/punishing her for hurting Peter. Segel gives her a completely honest moment that is the best proof of how mature he is, and then he backpedals a bit with the yelling that clearly is just meant to get a laugh. But then comes the end that makes up for so many Big Misunderstanding/One Major Blunder tropes I totally forgive it.

    • I feel the same way about the ending — it’s a step backwards that doesn’t fit with the character’s growth. But I suppose since it’s Segel’s first movie (as a writer, anyway), I let it go. I think Bell did a great job with the character. If a less talented actress had been cast, the character could have been a whiny, bratty caricature. The thing I love about Veronica Mars — er, I mean Bell — is that she can be tough but still have this undercurrent of vulnerability.

  5. Wow, your review makes me want to see this. I was kinda intrigued when I saw the trailer a while ago but Russell Brand’s real-life antics kinda turned me off. But after reading this I might give it a shot. Segel has such a likable presence, that’s cool that he wrote this one also.

    • @ Ruth — I’m a Russell Brand fan, and I also love Jason Segel (it’s a “Freaks and Geeks” thing), so I was hooked from the minute I heard about this movie. But even if you don’t like Brand, there’s so much else to enjoy about the movie: the secondary characters (LOVE Jack McBrayer), the dialogue, the lack of overall mushiness and melodrama.

      I can’t wait to see the upcoming “Puppets” movie — Segel had a hand in that one too. Apparently he really did write a Dracula musical.

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