A film review by Craig J. Koban

Rank: #12


2008, R, 111 mins.


Peter Bretter: Jason Segel / Sarah Marshall: Kristen Bell / Rachel Jansen: Mila Kunis / Brian Bretter: Bill Hader / Matthew: Jonah Hill / Chuck: Paul Rudd / Aldous Snow: Russell Brand

Directed by Nicholas Stoller / Written by Segal.

FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL, if anything, is one of those perfectly well tailored, once in a blue moon introductions to a new and inspired comic maestro.  He is a 28-year-old Californian named Jason Segel.  His name may not be familiar, but you may recall seeing him on TV (he was a regular the short lived FREAKS AND GEEKS, did one memorable episode of ALIAS and can most recently be seen on HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER) and in movies (he was one of the stoner friends in KNOCKED UP, where he offered up such hilarious advice like, “If a woman’s on top, she can’t get pregnant.  It’s just gravity”).   

Segel is the poster boy for the everyman and is one of the most atypical and least glamorized leading men to grace the silver screen.  He’s not a tall, dark, chiseled to the hilt, beefcake of a man that looks like he just walked off the cover page of GQ.  No, he’s big, lumbering, pudgy, covered in body freckles, and is – in all manners – exceedingly ordinary looking.  That’s the hook of FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL, which Segel stars in and writes:  A handsome and debonair actor would have all but buried the material; with Segel, his slacker personified insignificance and physical normalcy injects the film with a sense of reality.  Audiences can relate to him that much more because he looks like your average, twentysomething schlub. 

FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL is also a film that proudly and exultantly continues the Judd Apatow rejuvenation of one of the most beloved of all genres: the romantic comedy.  He has made two of the best and uproarious comedies of our current decade in THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN and KNOCKED UP, but he has also completely altered and deconstructed the romantic comedy in what I think is the most important renovation of any genre in many a moon.  Romantic comedies have long been lock up within the confines of “chick flicks”;  female centric films where men are portrayed as lecherous sex-starved maniacs or dopey, uncaring and unsympathetic fiends.   

What Apatow has done is to radically depart from the normal elements of the genre and craft something altogether fresh and reinvigorating: The romantic dramedy for men from the vulnerable male prerogative where men bare all of their indignities – among other things – to reveal all of their hidden insecurities and frailties.  They also do this by absolutely amalgamating seedy and raunchy intrigue, large-scale farcical laughs, and warm and sentimental figures.  Nobody has done this as well as Apatow as of late, who can easily be described as an interesting hybrid of the Farrellys, Blake Edwards and Woody Allen.

Apatow is not listed as director in FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL (that credit goes to first time filmmaker Nicolas Stoller) and he instead serves as a quarterback of sorts as the film’s producer.  His aesthetic stamp and influence can be felt through the film, but it is the emergence of Segel that is the film’s true standout achievement.  We have had countless personas from the sitcom world migrate from the small screen to the silver screen with intermittent results, but Segel’s may just become one of the most lauded and celebrated.   

What he does here in MARSHALL is nothing short of amazing: He not only gives us razor sharp dialogue filled with hilarious quips and one-liners, but he also infuses the script with moments of intelligent reflection with its characters, all of whom are given three dimensionality and are never lazily written to service the convenience of the story.  More importantly, FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL just may be one of the most spot-on honest portrayals and riffs on the extent of male bewilderment, humiliation, emotional and physical breakdown, and romantic insecurity that I have ever seen.  The fact that it is just that and also a wacky and zany humdinger of a comedy is to its credit.  Few films are able to mix the social awkwardness and horror that dives into one man’s pain with bursts of comic and dramatic energy as well as this one does. 

Segel memorably plays Peter Bretter and in the beginning of the film he has a scene of stunning, shocking, and graphic humiliation after the love of his life, Sarah Marshall (the unremittingly fetching Kristen Bell, from TV’s VERONICA MARS and HEROES) dumps him.  Sarah is no ordinary girlfriend:  she is TV celebrity royalty and is the star of one of those dime-a-dozen crime scene investigation shows called, yup, “Crime Scene” (some of the funniest bits in the film are the clips from the show, which have William Baldwin doing an absolute dead right riff on David Carruso, whose enunciation of every line in CSI: MIAMI garners a lot of unintentional mockery).  Peter absolutely worships Sarah and has had a long relationship with her for five years.  However, he is not the star that she is and constantly lives in her shadow.  He too works in the business, but as a composer for the crime show, and mostly spends his days at home.  He does have a passion project that he wants to get off of the ground:  A rock opera about Dracula...with puppets. 

So, the day comes where Sarah gives Peter the painful news that she is royally dumping him.  Peter, of course, is devastated and drowns his sorrows away by looking at old pics of his girlfriend, watching her news bits on ACCESS HOLLYWOOD, and by eating crock pot sized bowls of Fruit Loops.  He has hit rock bottom, but he is consoled by his step-brother (the very funny Apatow regular, Bill Hader).  They hit nightclubs and Peter tries to get Peter back on the chick saddle.  Moments of him trying to pick women up are degrading and shameful, not to mention funny, and Peter soon realizes that he has some serious separation issues…especially when he starts crying in bed next to the girl he just has a one night stand with. 

Realizing that his life has gone down the proverbial crapper, Peter decides to take action.  He and Sarah once talked about a particular spot in luscious Hawaii that they wanted to see, so he decides to go there to get away from the baggage of his LA breakup.  Big mistake.  No sooner does he arrive at the front desk of the hotel does he spot the bikini clad Sarah (when she rightfully asks why he is there, Peter side-splittingly and sarcastically deadpans, “I came here to kill you,” to which he then laughs and provides the film’s most uncomfortable moment).  What’s even worse is that Sarah is now there with her new beau, a sanctimonious British Rocker with aspirations of world peace and harmony, named Aldous Snow (the brilliantly funny Russell Brand), whose music videos and lyrics are howlers.  Peter thinks his vacation has gone all to hell, but he is befriended by the hotel receptionist named Rachel (Mila Kunis, from TV’s THAT 70’S SHOW, whose has utterly blossomed into a luminous, gorgeous brunette goddess that radiates the screen).    

What’s interesting here is that Rachel sees and understands Peter’s pain and insecurities and shows him some tenderness and compassion by befriending him.  She too is a victim of a breakup, so she can relate, but she does not want to be a rebound, trophy girlfriend to Peter so that he can use her as a jealousy ploy against Sarah.  One of the most joyous aspects of Segal’s largely male centered script is that he writes his female characters with authority, kindness, and honesty to the point where they never feel like plot hindrances.  Rachel is funny, bubbly, eccentric, and as cute as hell, but she also is a susceptible and apprehensive person.  What’s even better is how Bell’s Sarah Marshall never gets delegated to being the cast-iron and vengeful bitch of the film that we are supposed to hate.  We want to despise her for breaking up with the affable Peter, but the film is smarter than that and as it goes on we have scenes where the teary eyed Sarah reveals her hidden pains and rationale behind leaving Peter.  We then grow to understand her inner issues and emotional dilemmas, which also makes her oddly sympathetic.  Female characters are rarely this well written in sex comedies.

Of course, this is an Apatow venture, so the film’s quotient of soft, touchy-feely sentimentality is matched equally by its laugh-out-loud quotient.  Alongside the moments of tender, soft-spoken intrigue there are many moments of inspired highjinks.  Segel is able to deliver knee-slapping laughs that help give flavor to what could have been routine and predictable moments, and he does so with strange and absurd sight gags, brilliant one lines, and uproarious back and forth exchanges.  FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL is as funny as anything I’ve seen this year and there are instances of comic inventiveness throughout. 

Peter’s moment where he gets the news that he is being dumped is shocking, sad, and funny, as is a moment later in the film where – in an attempt to get his mind off of things – he helps a Hawaiian local slaughter a pig for a lavish meal.  Also laugh inducing is when Peter gets on stage at a bar in front of Rachel and drunken spectators and sings a song from his Dracula rock opera, which is inventive and funny.  There is also many sly instances where Peter and his step brother correspond via web cam chat and another scene where Rachel and Peter go cliff diving gets some large slapstick chuckles.  One of the funnies scenes occurs when Peter awakens from a one-night stand and one of his buddies, while he’s naked in bed surrounded by tissues, asks, “Are those happy or sad tissues?” 

The supporting characters are also universally droll.  Another Apatow regular, Paul Rudd, gives us nuggets of comic gold with his performance as a pot-induced surf instructor (“When life gives you lemons, just say ‘Fuck lemons’ and bail!) and Apatowite Jonah Hill also makes a very amusing cameo as a clingy and strange restaurant greater that seems very attracted to Sarah’s new rocker boyfriend (he attempts to give his demo CD to him after Aldous has a rather bad argument with Sarah, to which he later tells Hill that he was going to listen to it, but he “just got carried on with living life”).  Perhaps the single funniest side character is played by Jack McBrayer (a very funny regular on one of TV'S best comedies, 30 ROCK) who plays a conservative Christian whom is on his honeymoon with his sex-craving wife and he reveals what a relative novice he is when it comes to pleasing her.  He utters one of the funniest lines of recent memory when he seeks sex advice from Peter by asking, “If God was such a great engineer, then why did he put the plumbing so close to the amusement park?” 

However great everyone is in FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL, Peter Segel is the film’s champion and hero.  It’s his one-two punch of delivering a smart, whimsical, and humorously touching screenplay and equally witty, affectionate and endearing performance that makes his efforts here masterful.  His writing hits all the right notes, as does his performance, and what’s great about the film is that this is an adult comedy for adults, and prudes need not apply (there are the obligatory f-bombs littered throughout, and there is copious amounts of simulated sex scenes involving multiple positions, felatcio, and stimulation).  What’s truly compelling is that the film does not offer up a smorgasbord of female nudity (there are glimpses here and there) and instead has Segel offering up his own plump full frontal façade for sensationalistic effect.  Perhaps the film escaped an NC-17 for the way the sex and nudity are played up for humorous – and not eroticized – effect.  What Segel does is remind viewers – male and female alike – that human sexuality is oftentimes uncomfortable and, most crucially, that there is a decided emotional crutch to it.  Look at one vital sex scene late in the film where Peter realizes that there is more to sex than just arousal.  There are some startling truths here that other sex scenes in weaker films would miss.

FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL is an absolute breakthrough American comedy classic.  It lovingly plays off of and continues Judd Apatow’s insistence on revolutionizing the genre by combining the best elements of female and male centric comedies and by instilling a sly level of intelligence, bawdy guffaws, and warmth and depth to its characters.  Perhaps it’s most long-standing achievement is the materialization of Jason Segel as a miraculous new comic find.  As the writer/performer of MARSHALL, he is this film’s soulful comic and dramatic heartbeat as he fully embraces every subtle, outrageous, heart-rending, and sensationalistic moment of the film without any pretense of ego or self-absorption.  The term masterpiece never really gets thrown out when discussing screen comedies.  In terms of FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL, it proves how a comedy can seize that accolade to worthy effect.  This is one of 2008’s very best films.

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