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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-

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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.”

“Despicable Me” trailer out (in HD for the pixel snobs)

Can you say “dream cast”? Universal’s “Despicable Me” has one, alright, and it includes everyone from Jason Segel (Nick Andopolis!) to Julie Andrews to Russell Brand (the guy whose hair looks like mental illness!). Oh, and silly me — I forgot Steve Carell. Catch a glimpse of the trailer and join me in the long, long wait until July 9, 2010.