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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-

Desert Island CDs Blogathon

There's this desert island, see? And I'm stuck on it.

Great ideas come in pairs. So as a companion piece to Andy the Fandango Groover’s hugely popular Desert Island DVDs blogathon in April 2010, here is the Desert Island CDs blog event. The predicament is only slightly different this time: If you were stuck on a desert island and could listen to only 12 songs — all from movie soundtracks — which 12 tracks would you pick?

Below are the 12 soundtrack tunes I’d gladly listen to until I rallied the tiger blood within and swam after a passing boat, or angry seagulls pooped on my head until I went stark raving mad … for the definitive list of soundtrack selections, click the graphic above.

1. “Jai Ho” by A.R. Rahman (“Slumdog Millionaire” soundtrack) — Rahman’s “Jai Ho” may be the most infectious and joyous original composition ever to grace a film soundtrack. A little improvised Bollywood dancing — or an exuberantly bad impression — would be an excellent cure for the desert island blues.

2. “Dracula’s Lament” by Jason Segel (“Forgetting Sarah Marshall” soundtrack) — Puppet Dracula knows loneliness. He is an island. I’m stuck on a desert island. You do the math.

3. “Flowers on the Wall” by The Statler Brothers (“Pulp Fiction” soundtrack) — Nothing invites dwelling on past heartbreak like solitude, and The Statler Brothers gave the world perhaps the smartest, funniest song about coping with the minutiae of daily life after a breakup.

4. “Lift Me Up” by Bruce Springsteen (“Limbo” soundtrack) — Go through Bruce Springsteen’s entire catalogue — go on, I’ll wait; I have nothing to do but soak up UV rays in this hellhole — and you won’t find a more heart-wrenching, life-affirming and haunting love song than “Lift Me Up.”

5. “The What” by The Notorious B.I.G. feat. Method Man (“The Wackness” soundtrack) — Life dealing crack in the alleys of Bed-Stuy is hard. So is a life sentence of sand in places that don’t need exfoliating and daily sunburn. That kind of hard, mean reality demands a daily dose of F.T.W. attitude.

6. “I’ll Fly Away” by Gillian Welch (“O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack) — Remember how Emily Dickinson said hope is the thing with feathers? Sometimes a desert island dweller doesn’t need attitude but hope. Nobody doles out gospel-tinged, Old-Time-Religion hope like Gillian Welch.

7. “Lover” by Devendra Banhart (“Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” soundtrack) — Sometimes a sweeping love song won’t get the job done. That’s when a little playfulness (and a lot of sexual innuendo) come in mighty handy, and Barnhart’s “Lover” has both in spades.

8. “Wise Up” by Aimee Man (“Magnolia” soundtrack) — Chances are, if you’re stuck on a desert island, it’s because you made one fool choice or another. Aimee Mann’s nasal warbling and her poignant lyrics from “Magnolia” will remind you not to make the same mistake twice.

9. “Comfortably Numb” by Pink Floyd (“The Departed” soundtrack) — Comfortable numbness, as a state of being and as a way of handling (or avoiding) the world, is highly underrated. Roger Waters and David Gilmour get that, and they communicate it beautifully here.

10. “The Book I Write” by Spoon (“Stranger Than Fiction” soundtrack) — Fatalism is the enemy of survival in a desert island stranding situation. “The Book I Write” should provide just enough make-your-own-luck energy to see me through the darkest moments.

11. “Long Cool Woman (in a Black Dress)” by The Hollies (“Remember the Titans” soundtrack) — Although I wasn’t alive in 1972, The Hollie’s criminally cool “Long Cool Woman (In a Black Dress)” makes me feel like I was. It’s as if these guys condensed the ’70s into 3 minutes and 2 seconds of awesomeness.

12. “Here I Come” by The Roots feat. Malik B. and Dice Raw (“Superbad” soundtrack) — I’m convinced that if I listen to this song long and hard enough, I’ll sprout a superhero cape, spontaneously develop the ability to fly and catapult myself off this damn island without getting one hair out of place.

My thought on today

Why 2008 rocked: (Most of) the best films of the year

Why so serious? It has something to do with Heath Ledger's hot-box-of-crazy-brilliant turn as The Joker in "The Dark Knight."

Why so serious? It has something to do with Heath Ledger's hot-box-of-crazy-brilliant turn as The Joker in "The Dark Knight."

To paraphrase the not-so-late, great Paul McCartney, news of my death was great exaggerated.

Yes, readers, it seems that I am not dead after all. Nor did I fall into a black hole, or fall off the edge of the Earth in an ill-fated journey to discover that the world really is flat (take that, Francis Drake).

What have I been doing for the past two weeks? For one, I’ve been suffering — I mean enjoying — the holiday season. For another, I’ve been pondering (which is much harder than, say, thinking) about the hardest thing I have to do all year: make a “best films of 2008” list. After 2007, I was spent. I mean, how could 2008 possibly offer up anything better than “Juno,” or “Zodiac,” or “Lars and the Real Girl,” or “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” or “No Country for Old Men.” I was convinced 2007 was so groundbreaking that nothing could top it.

(I believe this is the part where a stranger pops out of thin air and thumps me on the forehead, thus initiating the newest “coulda had a V-8” commercial.)

Oh, how wrong I was. This year, Hollywood has produced so many mind-blowing films I cannot list them all, cannot wrap my feeble little movie-sucking brain around them. And so, in an attempt to save my sanity, I have compiled a list of just 10 movies that made me laugh, think, gasp, or just generally harbor a secret belief that it’s not too late for me to gain acceptance to a prestigious film school.

Without further adieu, here they are: the Top 10 Movies of 2008….

10. “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” — Everything sounds better when spoken in a romance language. Apparently Woody Allen caught wind of this and decided to apply it to “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” his most relaxed, romantic comedy yet. Set in Spain, this little-seen rom-com centers on pragmatic, tightly-wound grad student Vicky (Rebecca Hall, born to be a Woody Allen heroine) and artistic libertine Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), who take a vacation in Spain and get wined-and-dined by sensual painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem in F-I-N-E form). Gorgeous scenery, a flamenco-themed soundtrack and a volcanic performance by Penelope Cruz signal that the Woodman seems primed for his second wind.

9. “Sex and the City” — Roger Ebert slammed “Sex and the City,” Sarah Jessica Parker’s labor of love. He noted, however, that he wasn’t part of the target audience. Oh, RE, how right you were — “Sex and the City” is as much about men as “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” was about women. That aside, though it IS a love letter to die-hard fans (guilty as charged), “SATC” also deserves a spot in the best of 2008 because it works as one of the few truly insightful, intelligent films — albeit a highly stylized one — about women and their friendships. Here’s to hoping more directors realize what we chicks have known for ages: If you make smart movies about women, we will buy tickets to see them.

8. “Iron Man” — Listen carefully in “Iron Man” and you can hear the sound of something very, very rare: the improbable sound of a career being reborn. With guidance from Jon Favreau (in danger of becoming one of my favorite directors), a one-liner-lobbing, high-flying Robert Downey Jr. redefined our notion of what makes for a great comic book superhero as Iron Man. His work in “Tropic Thunder” is no less brilliant, but “Iron Man” stands as his own personal Declaration of Independence. Bring on the sequel!

7. “Pineapple Express,” “Tropic Thunder,” “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” (three-way tie) — For me, 2008 forever will remain the year that the “blockbuster comedy” got a much-needed makeover. Need more convincing? Check out “Pineapple Express,” an explosion-packed yet wildly funny 21st-century stoner flick that featured the best comic pairing — that would be Apatow vets Seth Rogen and James Franco, criminally underappreciated as a comic actor — in recent memory. But wait; there’s more. Nothing tops Ben Stiller’s “Apocalypse Now”-on-acid metamovie about a ragtag band of sitting-duck actors (including the Divine Robert Downey Jr. and a marvelously cast, googly-eyed Jack Black) fooled into thinking they’re making a war movie. Rounding out this trinity is Jason Segel’s keenly observed, heartfelt and unexpectedly touching “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” where the actor bears all — anatomically AND emotionally — as a musician crushed when his girlfriend (Kristen Bell) dumps him for a nympho rock star (Russell Brand, giving THE comic performance of the year).

6. “Doubt” — Released just under the wire (Christmas Day nationwide) to merit inclusion for a slew of deserved Oscars, this meticulously paced, fascinating drama unfolds like a play — which it was originally — with a stunner of an ending (re: don’t expect to be spoon-fed). But the real treat? Watching two of Hollywood’s finest, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep, go balls-to-the-wall as a flawed but kind-hearted priest and a by-the-book nun possessed of a stare that would make Hitler tremble. Consider it a lesson in what constitutes “Oscar-worthy acting.”

5. “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” — Criminally overlooked by Oscar, this gripping Romanian film nonetheless deserves a moment — however brief or unrecognized in this little blog — to shine. Set in Romania in 1987, this flawlessly acted, plotted and paced gem shines a light on the realities of living under a dictatorship. Anamaria Rinca is pull-out-your-thesaurus-good as Otilia, a college student who helps her clueless roommate Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) secure an abortion from a creepily serene back-door abortionist (Vlad Ivanov). This IFC film offers proof that sometimes, when it comes to thrillers, less is more — and less is much, much more powerful.

4. “Milk” — Anyone who’s followed Sean Penn’s career (that includes this blogger, who has been a devoted fan since “Ridgemont High”) knows he is an actor who revels in risky parts (“Dead Man Walking,” “Mystic River,” … I could go on, but I won’t). Penn is pure dynamite as Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected public official, delivering a performance that is every bit as measured as it is electrifying. As Milk, he’s as much a shrewd, system-stroking politician as he is an activist. Josh Brolin deserves props for his subtle but simmering turn as Dan White, the conflicted colleague ultimately responsible for Milk’s death. Still, Van Sant balances the film mostly on Penn’s shoulders, and it’s a gamble that (not surprisingly) pays off big-time.

3. “Slumdog Millionaire” — Within the first 30 minutes, Danny Boyle’s unassuming coming-of-age love story proves why it deserves the title so frequently foisted upon it (that would be 2008’s Little Film That Could, or The “Juno” of 2008). Relative newcomer Dev Patel scores what can only be called a “breakthrough performance” as Jamal Malik, who sees an appearance on a Hindi game show as his chance to win the love of Latika (a first-rate Freida Pinto). It’s the kind of underdog story you can’t help but root for.

2. “WALL-E” — Who could have predicted that a jaw-droppingly colorful Pixar movie about a mostly mute robot would turn into the love story of the year? Certainly not yours truly, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying every last second of this post-apocalyptic love story about a lonely little automaton named WALL-E who finds the love of his life, loses her, finds her again and then discovers he’s got a bigger mission: namely, saving Planet Earth. Part sci-fi adventure, part futuristic fantasy, part romantic comedy, “WALL-E” is nothing less than one of the most charming, imaginative films of the year.

1. “The Dark Knight” — Forget the unfortunate snub by the Golden Globes; pay no attention to the inevitable ignorance of the Academy Awards. For my money, in 2008 there was no better film released than “The Dark Knight.” A dark, nuanced epic tragedy for the ages, this stunner drew viewers to the theater in record numbers — and with good reason. Heath Ledger’s recreation of The Joker as an “agent of chaos” deserves a spot in history. But there’s more to “TDK” than Ledger. Great performances? Check. Breath-snatching cinematography? Absolutely. A bone-chilling score? Please. And all of this makes “TDK” more than the best film of 2008; it makes this creation one of the best superhero movies ever made. Period.

The Best Is Yet to Come: One of the perks — is “perks” the right word? — of living in a glamorous state like South Carolina is that award-gobbling feature films, uh, don’t premiere here until months after New York, L.A., Chicago, etc.-area critics have seen them, wet their pants in delight, praised them to high heaven/beyond and moved on. And so it should come as no surprise that there are three such movies absent from my list: “Rachel Getting Married,” “Frost/Nixon” and “The Wrestler.” Rest assured that once I cast my peepers upon these critical darlings, they will (I feel certain) merit addition to my Best Films of 2008. Other films I’m breaking out in itchy hives of anticipation to see: Romantic comedy “Last Chance Harvey” — starring two of my favorite actors, Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman — and “Gran Torino,” hailed by critics as Clint Eastwood’s best role since “Dirty Harry.”