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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-

Portman finds beauty in tragedy in Aronofsky’s bizarre “Black Swan”

Natalie Portman embraces the demons of an unstable prima ballerina in "Black Swan."

“Black Swan,” like no other film released in 2010, is a tale full of sound and fury. It does not, however, signify nothing. The opposite is true — Darren Aronofsky’s strange, alluring beast of a motion picture has a number of grand purposes. It’s a melodrama with operatic peaks and valleys, a horror film nearly Gothic in its excess, an arty psychological thriller, a grim character study. Two things secure these many threads together: Natalie Portman’s astonishing performance and Aronofsky’s vision. The director places complete faith in her ability to dissolve herself into not one but two difficult characters. Portman does it so splendidly at times that her own sanity seems in peril.

That’s the kind of performance Aronofsky demands of his actors — total immersion, no excuses. In her own way, as mentally unstable ballerina Nina Sayers Portman goes just as far as Ellen Burstyn did in “Requiem for a Dream.” Both women have lost whatever pitiful coping mechanisms they had. In Nina’s case, it is not drugs that cause her complete break with reality; instead, it is a combination of people and their conflicting demands that turn a hairline fracture into a full-blown spiderweb of fissures ready to shatter. There is her mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey, deserving of many awards), a domineering, creepy figure living vicariously through her daughter’s successes and failures. She hovers in a way that is suffocating and frightening. No less creepy is Thomas (Vincent Cassel, sublimely sleazy), the company director who beds his stars and fancies himself a revolutionary brilliant enough to reinvent a classic like “Swan Lake.” A textbook cad, he’s cast Nina as his new little princess, the Swan Queen in his pared-down production of “Swan Lake.” He sees the frail, virginal White Swan in Nina’s every move; what he wants is to push his meek ingénue into darker realms, where she can unearth the seductive, evil Black Swan within. Adding still more pressure is competitor Lily (Mila Kunis), a dancer with a natural sensuality Thomas finds perfect for the Black Swan, and Beth (a near-unrecognizable Winona Ryder), the alcoholic has-been replaced by Nina as Thomas’ pet, and possibly his lover.

Told straight-forward or even ever-so-slightly skewed, “Black Swan” would be a worthwhile film, even a compelling one. But Aronofsky, with his affection for shuffling and reshuffling the prisms of reality on his characters, rarely cottons to linear storytelling. “Black Swan” is structured in such a way that the one thing Nina can never be sure of — the one thing the audience can never be sure of — is what is real and what is imagined. Is Nina beginning to sprout feathers from her shoulders and under her fingernails? Is Lily her enemy, her friend, or a representation of the darker impulses, the primal needs Nina represses? It’s a road Aronofsky fans know well, but his gift is that he makes every it feel new and personal and harrowing every time. The deeper into the Swan Queen role Nina goes, the more frequent and ghoulish her visions become. Eventually, it’s not possible to tell where the visions end and the real life begins. They could be one and the same; the film’s merging of reality and dreams/hallucinations/visions is a frenzied metaphor for the crash course Nina’s conscious and subconscious mind are set on. As she gives in to the chaos, lets go of her desire for perfection and her need for order, so must the audience. It’s the only way to accept a work like “Black Swan,” where the drama is played — in Clint Mansell’s bombastic score and the alternately sweeping/claustrophic cinematography — past the 10s. 

This may be the very personal story of one woman’s descent into madness (and, some might argue, a complete artistic breakthrough), but it has the timeless, universal feel of a Greek tragedy. Portman manages what few actresses could: to show not just the horror of this meltdown, but the beauty in it too. 

Grade: A

Fey and Carell are a comedy dream team in “Date Night”

People who steal dinner reservations (Tina Fey, Steve Carell) have to use the payphone that smells like urine.

Just as the trailers promise, Phil and Claire Foster (Steve Carell, Tina Fey) spend a lot of time in “Date Night” shrieking and dishevelled, running around like (nicely dressed) headless chickens. But we all know that underneath those layers of ironic normalcy they’ve been waiting years for something this exciting to happen, something to shake them out of their two-car, two-job, two-kid coma. Neither one had the energy to concoct an adventure themselves. All they needed was a movie to do it for them.

This is ground zero of why “Date Night” is such a pointlessly entertaining romp: It makes perfect sense that Phil and Claire’s situation makes no sense. Phil and Claire are nice, overexerted suburbanites who have lost their spark to jobs and kids, and why would they get wrapped up in this kind of tomfoolery if it wasn’t a plot contrivance? Shawn Levy’s “Date Night” requires only that Fey and Carell play along, sell their chagrin at these outrageous circumstances and, at the end, give in/enjoy the adrenaline rush of it all and be a little changed — for the better — by the whole experience. This plot has been done umpteen-thousand times, but it has not been done by Tina Fey and Steve Carell, which makes all the difference. They have the right look, the right romatic and comedy chemistry, the right comic timing (their invented stories about other diners are invaluable). They are the key. Without them, “Date Night” would be just another ho-hum entry in the genre.

Levy wastes little time painting a portrait of suburban life, possibly because he knows there’s no need; this is been-there, done-that territory. Phil and Claire are the definition of respectable married people. He is a tax man who quietly urges his clients to invest their $600 refund instead of blowing it on a trip to Spain so they can “do it on the beach”; she is a real estate agent who lies about how close her houses are to New York City. They see each other mornings and nights, where Claire putting on her dental Night Guard is code for “nobody’s having sex in this bed tonight.” Two jobs and two kids and him never closing any drawer ever have muted their spark. Adventure takes over when Phil and Claire, at a high-falutin’ NYC restaurant, steal the Tripplehorns’ (James Franco, Mila Kunis) reservation. (This becomes a running gag that loses only a little steam by the conclusion.) This is worse than stealing someone else’s reservation because the Tripplehorns are in cahoots with a meanie mobster (Ray Liotta as Ray Liotta), two dirty cops (Jimmi Simpson, Common) and the DA (William Fichtner), a man who cannot resist a lap dance.

Spending any more time detailing the plot would be useless, because it’s standard-issue fish-outta-water comedy stuff. The important thing isn’t what happens but how Fey and Carell make what happens funny. There are, perhaps, no two comedians better suited for this: Fey excels at acerbic observational humor and withering sarcasm, while Carell could make understated physical comedy and rants into Olympic sports. For fans of both, this is an epic pairing that should have happened years ago. Marvel at the way Carell loses his cool with Claire’s perpetually shirtless ex-client Holbrooke (Mark Wahlberg, funnier than people give him credit for), or Carell’s expression as he clings to the hood of a cab he’s driven into the Hudson. Then there’s the matter of their bizarre “routine” in a local strip joint, which defies explanation and contains a shoutout to “Showgirls.” They get support from Franco and Kunis, no slouches in the ha-ha department, who are underused as the Tripplehorns but make their parts memorable. Kristen Wiig provides her usual outrageous soundbites, and Fichtner, too, a workhorse of a character actor, is somewhat wasted in his part. Please, Hollywood, let Wiig and Fichtner headline some movies. Just one each?

Then again, “Date Night” is essentially a big, noisy showcase for the talents of Steve Carell and Tina Fey. And if either one was any less talented, that might be a bad thing.

Grade: B

Judge dials down the savagery in kinder “Extract”

The best way to get a promotion from the boss (Jason Bateman)? Become, ahem, half a man (Clifton Collins Jr.) due to a horrendous plant accident.

The best way to get a promotion from the boss (Jason Bateman)? Become, ahem, half a man (Clifton Collins Jr.) due to a horrendous plant accident.

In another life, Mike Judge must have been a reporter. Every one of his movies has an angle designed to sway our sympathies in the exact direction he wants. In “Office Space,” we felt for put-upon cubicle drone Peter Gibbons, with his eight nagging bosses. With “Idiocracy,” it was Joe and Rita, average people submerged in a sea of grunting buffoons, who won our hearts (sort of). How, we wondered, would we react to a world where Starbucks sells handjobs, not venti chai lattes?

Judge’s latest comedy, the warmer, gentler “Extract,” spurs us to feel sympathy for Joel (Jason Bateman), who built his flavor extract company from the ground up and believes in treating his employees with kindness. He’s the kind of boss who knows not only his employees’ names but what their purses look like. He cares enough to pay attention when other people don’t.

In this case, those “other people” are Suzie (Kristen Wiig), Joel’s bored wife who uses sweatpants to fend off his increasingly desperate sexual advances; Brian (J.K. Simmons), Joel’s sarcastic second-in-command who calls everyone “Dinkus”; and Nathan (David Koechner), Joel’s Bob Wiley-styled neighbor who materializes daily at his car window like the pop-up book from hell. The only people who seem halfway interested in Joel are Dean (a nicely low-key Ben Affleck), an old bartender buddy who pops Xanax for head colds, and Cindy (Mila Kunis), a flirty temp a little too interested in extract to be totally genuine.

Since this is a Mike Judge movie, there are elements of the fantastic — in the form of crazy twists and ideas — lurking in all this banality, little schemes that Everyman uses to distract himself from the disappointment that fills his life. (These are Judge trademarks. Learn to love them.) Cindy’s “job” at the factory is a direct result of a freak accident that leaves Shep (the ever-subtle Clifton Collins Jr.) minus one testicle. A dumb-as-a-stump gigolo (Dustin Milligan) becomes part of a trap to entice Suzie to cheat. And there’s a bohemoth bong and a horse tranquilizer thrown in for good measure.

All this tomfoolery, however, doesn’t disguise the flaws inherent in Judge’s design. The endless plots start piling up on each other and strain the bounds of credibility. (Viewers can suspend disbelief only so far, really.) After awhile, they start to feel scattered and haphazard and a little too out-there. Maybe the reason for that is that there is no clear villain in “Extract,” no Bill Lumbergh, to focus our distaste on. Instead we’re given people like Brian, whose worst quality is disdain for his underlings, and Cindy, who knows her way around long and short cons but truly likes Joel. Judge seems careful not to demonize anyone, and he makes sure we laugh with, not at, them. Where’s the spirited satire, the biting, savage wit that made Judge a household name?

Still, that’s not to say “Extract” is a complete letdown. Far from it. There’s care in the performances, and the key players are anything but one-sided. Kunis continues to prove that she’s too good an actress for television, giving Cindy a shrewd ability to find and exploit people’s weaknesses as well as a measure of unexpected kindness. That Simmons, he has a way with withering one-liners. He’s become the go-to guy for snark. Affleck continues his recent career upswing, underacting wonderfully in a way we haven’t seen since his “Chasing Amy” days. Collins gives Shep more depth and sad pride than he ought to — what a fine actor, too fine for all these teensy parts.

At the center of all this is Bateman, who couldn’t play mean if his life depended on it. Too vulnerable and empathetic, that one. He’s so earnest a guy it’s impossible not to like him, though he may make you wonder if Judge’s gone all smooshy. I know I did. But then I looked closer, and I realized Judge’s always had a soft spot for the common man. Couldn’t villainize him if he tried. And in that light, “Extract” is the kind of humane, softer-edged comedy this average guy director has been waiting to make.

Grade: B-