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-

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My thought on today

Review: “10 Items or Less” (2006)

Grocery store checkout lanes are unusual places because people show everything about who they are and think they show nothing. It’s all right there on that rolling food-and-goods catwalk, all our personal preferences summed up in a shopping cart of air fresheners (Hawaiian breeze or fresh linen?) and bread and bananas and toilet tissue (Charmin or Quilted Northern?). Cashiers probably see more of human nature in a day than psychologists see in a lifetime, and still it feels anonymous.

Brad Silberling’s simplistic “10 Items or Less” isn’t about the anonymity, though; like “Snow Cake,” another indie 2006 release, it’s about the everyday opportunities for connection that people miss. On any other day, the protagonist, an actor known just as “Him” (Morgan Freeman), would belong in this category. But in the opening of “10 Items or Less,” Him is in a vulnerable spot. After commercial success in a few films with Ashley Judd (a nice dose of meta-humor), Him’s fame torch is flickering out. The big-money offers from big-name directors have dried up, so he’s considering taking a part in an indie film. Freeman, in his typical uncannily intuitive, droll and non-pretentious Morgan Freeman way, reasons this is a no-risk move. He even dubs it “the cinematic equivalent of a blow job” because if the movie’s a Sundance hit, it will boost his indie cred; if it’s a flop, hey, no harm done. Silberling may be pretty new to this scriptwriting gig, but observations like that sure don’t make him sound green.

At the Ranch Market in sun-bleached, bland Carson, Calif., Him locates his subject of study: Scarlet (Paz Vega), a bored and cranky cashier who’s an expert at sizing up her customers the minute they walk in the stoor. (Her P.A. system upbraiding of a repeat melon squeezer shows Vega has a comic timing purely her own.) She’s only 25, but already she hates her job, hates her ex (Bobby Cannavale) and the lazy coworker who’s sleeping with him (Anne Dudek), hates her life. In Vega there’s a stubborness that makes it easy to believe someone so young could be so hard. The actress, with that resoluteness and timing, is more than a Penelope Cruz copycapt. Him decides — if for no reason other than he’s stranded at the market because his ride (Jonah Hill) is M.I.A. — to help her lighten up. Somewhere between the 10 items or less lane, Target (Him is so awed by the low prices he demands “do people know about this place?”) and the job interview Scarlet’s dreading the two strike up a temporary, momentous friendship.

Owing to this lack of excitement (excluding the part where Scarlet rams her ex’s car), “10 Items or Less” is like any other independent film only moreso, Rick Blaine would say. Shot-wise, nothing stands out as aesthetically inventive, but that’s well and good — cameras in a minimalist character drama are meant to stay in the background. So is the plot, which is a string of barely interconnected scenes that require a lot of driving, some violence (see above) and humor, but not the yuk-it-up kind. This film’s whole reason for being is Scarlet and Him and the relationship they create out of practically nothing. Silberling sets about building their friendship very casually, starting with Him’s marvelling at the way Scarlet’s lightning-fast reflexes and Scarlet’s wariness of his boundless enthusiasm for the job she despises. Freeman is a snug fit for the role of Him, a part he’s playing in “10 Items or Less” and probably has played before in his many years as an actor. He’s the right kind of wise and the right kind of encouraging to push Scarlet’s Vega outside her small, unhappy life. Vega, so arresting in “Spanglish,” has enough anger-fueled gumption to match this star scene for scene. She’s got the leading-lady face; the talent is character actress-ready.

This is what I love about “10 Items or Less” in particular: Actors aside, there’s little to distinguish Him and Scarlet from the million other humans on Earth. They aren’t special at all, which is the very reason their story is poignant. They could be anybody, they are anybody, and together they are two anybodies better for having met each other.

Grade: A-

Brand, Hill revive oddball chemistry in “Get Him to the Greek”

Movie Lesson No. 1,287: When P. Diddy chases you, you run. Because he'll mindf*ck the sh*t out of you, motherf*cker.

As 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, the sexual pyrotechnics, that explosive Jack Sparrow/Freddie Mercury persona — Brand’s media whore Aldous Snow was the chap we couldn’t take our eyes off of. Powerless we were (or me were) to that rakish, nimble Brit wit; indeed, a rock star who blows off a stalker with “I was going to, but then I just carried on living my life” has formidable powers of observation.

As it happens, the “stalker” in question (same actor, different character) makes an appearance in Nicholas Stoller’s dirty-minded and raucous “Get Him to the Greek,” an exploration of the character Segel created two years ago. This time around, though, Jonah Hill, blank-eyed straight man to Russell Brand’s alcoholic snatch bandit, has flattened out the weirder edges of his character and made him a genuine fan sans “Single White Female” undertones. Hill, like his “Superbad” bud Michael Cera, has two speeds: crazed rants or deadpan observations. Because he does both well, he’s an excellent foil for Brand, who rushes into every experience with all the zeal of a bull after a cape-waving matador. The odd couple angle is old as time immemorial, but when the chemistry’s clicking it works like a beaut. Brand and Hill are two funnymen — both smarter than they look or act — who can sell this story.

“Get Him to the Greek” finds Aldous Snow in a different place than “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” did. His career has taken a nosedive thanks to a godawful single called “African Child.” If the song is a disaster, the video is on par with the BP oil spill, painting Aldous as a white rock star Jesus Christ. His relationship with inane British pop star Jackie Q (Rose Byrne, cheerfully tarty) has soured, so Aldous, former poster child for sobriety, hops back on the sauce. Every sauce. Fan Aaron Green (Hill), an intern at Pinnacle Records living with his girlfriend Daphne (Elizabeth Moss), devises a plan to put “the last real rock star” on top: a live concert at L.A.’s Greek Theatre to commemorate the last show Aldous played there. His ball-busting boss Sergio (Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, who apparently has a personality and, like, jokes) charges him with collecting Aldous from London, getting him to The Today Show and delivering him to the Greek Theatre. In actual world, this scenario would end in a series of shouting matches and a drug overdose, but in movie world it’s a yellow brick road to Hijinksville.

Critical to the success of this orchestrated hilary is the feeling of spontaneity and the rapport between the buddies in question. We expect certain shenanigans — clubbing, sexcapades — and then the film throws some wild cards (to say nothing of the brawl involving a “Geoffrey,” P. Diddy going medieval/mindfucking/cementing a new career dedicated to funny cameos and “stroking the furry wall,” which is not a euphemism). Every situation is funny. Brand and Hill’s reactions to situations are funny. And not since “The Odd Couple” has there been a wedding of two less similar people. Brand specializes in shoving people outside their comfort zones — he bathed with a homeless junkie on his U.K. show — while Hill specializes in looking fetchingly uncomfortable outside his box. They’re a formidable duo because Hill’s flair for understatement (only he could make a line like “I think I was raped” that funny) balances Brand’s childlike antics. Each actor gives a touch of humanity, especially Brand. There’s a moment where Aldous, seeking his deadbeat dad’s (Colm Meaney) approval, has such a wounded look about the peepers that the reasons for his behavior are painfully clear. Aaron takes notice, sympathizes in such a way that we understand how these two might become friends: They fill gaps*. You may say that’s too deep for a movie about a singer who writes a song about gonorrhea, but anything jives when Brand’s on the set.

Grade: B+

*Hands-down, the best quote in “Rocky.”

Fine performances redeem uneven “Funny People”

Funny_People

Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen make a comedy dream team in "Funny People."

Given the fact that Judd Apatow created “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up,” two of the frankest and funniest romantic comedies to come along in years, it’s not surprising he felt a yen to change things up in “Funny People.” After all, he’s been working this real-guys-cry-and-make-penis-jokes schtick since “Undeclared.” He’s entitled to go all “Elizabethtown” every now and again, right?

Maybe. Maybe Apatow has earned that right, but that doesn’t mean his fans aren’t more than a little disappointed to see him use it to make something as blatantly uneven as “Funny People.”  Here is a movie that is — much like Crowe’s “Elizabethtown” — two movies in one: a dark, bittersweet examination of regret, fame and isolation and a lame-brained comedy. One’s startlingly thoughtful, and the other feels a lot like a Sarah Palin-styled bailout. Guess which movie’s worth paying $7.50 to see.

Still, it’s hard to dismiss “Funny People” as a failure mostly because the first half is so strong and because the performances — all funny, right down to the non-key players — make the whole movie so enjoyable. And what a difference a few years has made for Adam Sandler, who banishes all memory of the crap that made him famous (like “Little Nicky”) with his astonishing turn as terminally ill stand-up comedian George Simmons. Time has worn down Sandler’s features, made his face more wistful and less impish. It’s the face of a real actor, and Sandler, somewhat miraculously, has become one.

This much is evident throughout “Funny People,” with Sandler digging deep to show us every layer of George Simmons. Sequestered in a giant California palace, the comedian spends most of his free time bedding groupies who only want sex so they’ll “have a story to tell their friends.” (Watch Sandler’s priceless delivery of this truth.) The discovery that he has leukemia prompts him to re-enter the stand-up world, and so he hires Ira  Wright (a career-best Seth Rogen), a floundering comedian, to write him new material.

Here is where the meat of “Funny People” exists, in these scenes where Simmons forms a strange bond with Ira, telling him about his diagnosis and trying, earnestly if cautiously, to make a real friend before he dies. Yet there is not one ounce of sap to be found in any of these moments, and credit must go to Apatow’s script and Sandler and Rogen’s talent. These two rip on each other without mercy, and their barbs are all the more powerful because it’s clear they disguise anguish. Ira’s naive and doesn’t know how to deal with the mess his one-time idol has made of his life. The more bitter George is haunted by regrets, not least of which was cheating on his ex-fiancee Laura (Leslie Mann, an actress of deceptive subtlety). In a dumber movie George and Ira might teach each other life lessons; in “Funny People,” neither one has much wisdom to offer. How refreshing that is.

Sadly, this vastly superior movie ends around the 75-minute mark and another begins, one I’m tempted not to mention at all because it’s kind of a sellout. But the second half contains some very impressive acting and a few points of redemption. George drags Ira on a road trip to find Laura. There’s some broad physical comedy in this, a few zingers (my favorite throwaway: Rogen’s “You can’t have two girls in China”) and some very fine chemistry shared by Mann and Sandler. Oh, and Eric Bana brings on the funny as Laura’s chatty Aussie husband. (Yes, the pre-Ed Norton “Hulk” guy has jokes.) But there’s no nuance in this act, and the finale is too pat, too neat.

But no more of this movie; it does not merit further discussion. What does is the acting, which is aces all around. Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman are hysterical (in very different ways) as Ira’s quarreling roommates. (Schwartzman also did the music for the movie.) People tend to say that Mann gets cast in these kinds of movies because she’s Apatow’s wife. That’s but a half-truth because Mann’s an actress who projects warmth, humor and vulnerability in every scene. And, of course, there’s Rogen and Sandler, never better. They make a great comedic team, but their individual performances are remarkably layered and distinctive in a movie that it is only marginally so.

Grade: B-