‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall’ in Which Jason Segel Bares All

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2008.

How cool would it have been to be on one of those Judd Apatow television shows? Neither “Freaks & Geeks” nor “Undeclared” lasted for more than one season, but the cult audiences for these shows keeps growing. Moreover, so many actors and writers from them have gone on to bigger careers in television and film. Seth Rogan was one of the kings of last summer as both an actor and a writer for “Knocked Up” and “Superbad,” James Franco has been in several movies including the “Spider-Man” trilogy, Linda Cardellini went on to the “Scooby Doo” movies playing Velma and now she plays Nurse Samantha Taggart on “ER,” etc. The list goes on and on, and Apatow keeps bringing out his extended family members for all to see. It’s like being on one of the shows gives you the greatest stroke of luck you can ever hope for in show business.

This reminds me, I once did extra work for “Freaks & Geeks.” This was on the episode right after Sam Weir broke up with his cheerleader girlfriend, and you will probably see me wearing a plaid shirt from the 1970’s. Yes, I was a geek that day. But you know what this means? Maybe some of the Apatow touch could spread to me! Yes! I can lay claim to being a part (albeit a very small part) of one of the best television shows you never watched. This makes me want to write my own screenplay and act in it! But anyway, enough about me…

The latest Apatow star to burn his name and identity into our collective consciousness is Jason Segel, and he wrote the screenplay for the movie he also stars in, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” The movie follows Jason’s character of Peter Bretter who is so in love with the title character (played by Kristen Bell) who is actually the big star of a television show which is a cross between “CSI” and “Bones” (William Baldwin plays her constantly adlibbing partner). One day, Sarah confronts a fully naked Peter to tell him she is breaking up with him. She says she has found someone else, and she tries, and fails, to let Peter down gently. Quickly, Peter falls into a deep dark depression which just about everyone goes through when they are dumped, and not even his stepbrother Brian Bretter (Bill Hader) can lift him out of it.

So, Peter heads off to Hawaii for a vacation to get away from his heartbreak and take some time for himself. But since Hawaii is such a romantic, it only makes his heart ache even more, and he gets phone calls from the front desk saying that a lady is crying very loudly from where he is. When Peter tries to hide his tears and says it must be from a lady in the room above him, the desk clerk reminds him he is on the top floor. But then things get even worse; Sarah shows up at the same resort with her new beau, Aldous Snow (Russell Brand), a rock star who is as dense as he is sexy. The movie becomes a game of sorts between Peter and Sarah as each tries to get past the other and find ways to put their heartbreak behind them.

The plot of “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” is by no means original. We have seen this kind movie before, but not with this much male full-frontal nudity. The execution and writing keep it from being another formulaic journey which we have all grown so tired of. For the most part, none of the characters’ actions feel at all contrived. The journey they all take, and how they change in the end feels very believable, and I didn’t find myself questioning it at all. Like many of Apatow’s films, the characters are so refreshingly down to earth that we can see ourselves as them. I usually avoid romantic comedies like the plague because they usually come off as very trite and manipulative. It’s usually a case of “you’re sexy, I’m sexy, so let’s fuck and introduce ourselves to each other later.” This is not the case here. All the characters come across as very likable, even the ones you initially think you are not supposed to like.

Segel doesn’t make too much of a stretch as an actor here as Peter is not much different from his character of Nick Andopolis on “Freaks & Geeks.” But he is a very good actor all the same and makes his character very likable even though we would probably get sick of him very quickly in real life. Peter spends a lot of time telling other people how he split from Sarah when he should probably just shut up about it. But Segel does a great job of making his character transition from an irrepressible whiner to a more mature person moving past a very painful time in his life.

Sarah Marshall is a bit of a bitch, but Kristen Bell does make her somewhat sympathetic. She acknowledges how nervous she is about the jump from television to and worries she will have to show some bush on the silver screen in order to make the jump. Please keep in mind, this is in the same movie where Segel bares all and shows us his, as Robin Williams once described it, “throbbing python of love.” Her character also makes a transition from someone who appears to have it all together to someone who couldn’t be more insecure or jealous if she tried, and its hilarious to watch.

The other great presence to be found here is Mila Kunis who we all remember from “That 70’s Show.” She plays the hotel desk clerk Rachel Jansen who befriends Peter in his utterly pitiful state, and ends up developing a strong relationship with him. Kunis perfectly portrays this down to earth individual many of us hope to meet in our lifetime. Rachel too is going through growing pains and fears, and she is also having troubles putting the past behind her. Through Peter, she finds a kindred spirit with whom she can relate, and in which she can see part of herself. Together, they challenge each other to get past the hurts and disappointments which have stalled them in their lives.

I also loved Russell Brand’s performance as Aldous Snow, the dim-witted rocker who ends up stealing Sarah Marshall from Peter. Usually, this kind of character is portrayed as such a hateful son of a bitch, but in some ways, Aldous comes across as kind of a cool person. It never occurs to him that inviting Peter to dinner and Sarah would be so awkward, and he never wants Peter to feel uncomfortable around him. Some guys would boast about stealing someone else’s girlfriend, but not Aldous, the recovering alcohol and drug addict lead singer of a rock band. Even though his character is as dense as they come, he also makes a transition when he realizes something about Sarah which she should have realized about herself a long time ago.

The movie also features a number of Apatow regulars who never fail to disappoint. “Saturday Night Live’s” Bill Hader is hilarious as Peter’s brother-in-law Brian Bretter who keeps giving advice Peter never follows in time. “Superbad’s” Jonah Hill plays a waiter at a Hawaiian restaurant who is more helpful to all the guests and to a fault. “30 Rock’s” Jack McBrayer plays a newlywed who spends the movie trying to make love to his wife the right way. And then there’s the always dependable Paul Rudd who steals just about every movie he is in these days. Rudd plays Chuck, a surfing instructor who is never quite clear in his lessons, and watching him is comedy nirvana.

“Forgetting Sarah Marshall” is one of those hit and miss comedies, but the stuff which does hit is funnier than anything else I have seen so far this year. Segel is a fine actor and writer as this movie proves, and the comedy juggernaut that is Judd Apatow Productions continues making some of the best movie comedies of today.

And I tell you, being an extra of “Freaks & Geeks” does qualify me for some of Apatow’s Midas touch. Laugh if you must, but my background work has to count for something.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Funny People – A Flawed But Fascinating Look at a Tortured Stand-Up Comedian

I always figured comedians were the best kind of people to hang out with as a kid. Hearing them tell funny stories, making joke after joke, happiness always seemed served up to them on a silver platter. But as time went on, I came to see while they were clowns on the outside, they were crying an endless river of tears inside. Comedy from these people comes from a deep pain and sadness in their lives, or out of a deep-seated anger they have at the world around them.

Look at Richard Pryor, need I say more? He had all the money, women, cars and drugs you could ever ask for. For “Superman III,” he ended up paid more than Christopher Reeve. Still, I remember reading an interview in which he said the last truly happy moment he remembers in his life was when he was jumping around in the dirt while pretending to be a cowboy at the age of 10, and he was in his 40’s when this interview was conducted. Comedy was his constant weapon against pain, and he never held anything back in his routines.

Funny People” understands very well this gloomy realm many comedians live in, and is written and directed by a filmmaker who still performs from time to time as a standup comedian, Judd Apatow. But unlike “The 40-Year Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up,” this film has a darker edge to it and doesn’t hide away from the inherent viciousness of its characters. “Funny People” has been advertised as a comedy drama, but the balance often veers more to the dramatic. There are many laughs to be had here, but this movie clearly came from a rather dark place.

Adam Sandler stars as George Simmons, a comedian turned movie star whose career looks a lot like Sander’s own. George became famous with movies like “Merman” where he played a male mermaid, and “Re-do” in which he plays a character whose body has transformed into that of an infant. Seeing George’s head digitally inserted onto a baby’s body at once gives us a great sight gag, but it also seems like the kind of silly comedy Sandler himself has made once too often. Besides, I have more than my fill of talking babies.

George has it all: a beautiful mansion overlooking the sea, a swimming pool he does laps in on a regular basis, great cars, women who don’t hesitate to sleep with him even if they have boyfriends, and all the money one could hope to live off of to the end of time. But in his eyes, we see he is a sad man who has come to truly despise himself for what he has become. All the wealth he has amassed only serves to isolate him from the rest of the world, and it makes him defensive around total strangers who are unable to see him as ever resembling a regular person. But now, his doctor has diagnosed him with a terminal disease and has only months left to live. George reacts to this news as if someone drained his blood while he wasn’t looking, and it makes him realize how much self-hatred he has. From there, he becomes to make every last minute of his life count, but this may not alter his antagonistic personality from where it currently resides.

As George Simmons, Adam Sandler gives one of his best performances to date, and its right up there with his brilliant turn in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch Drunk Love.” Not once does he back down from how George is a hard man to like. Throughout “Funny People,” George is dismissive to many around him, and he ends up being thoughtlessly mean to those who look up to him. Regardless, Sandler still manages to make you sympathize with this character and of the terminable diagnosis which he did not see coming. It’s the moments where Sandler lets it show through his eyes just how full of regret Simmons is, and it serves as proof of how this former “Saturday Night Live” performer is more talented than he thinks.

Along with this famous comedian on his cynical farewell tour is Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), an aspiring young comic who is not entirely confident with his stand-up act. George catches Ira’s act one night after he makes a surprise appearance at a comedy club, and while he is hurt when Ira discusses how he bombed onstage just moments before, George thinks this kid has got talent and offers to pay him some money to write up some jokes for an upcoming benefit show. From there, George hires Ira as his personal assistant, an employment opportunity which involves more work than the average 9 to 5 job which never pays enough.

Remember all those nasty horror stories from people who were assistants to the stars and certain sociopathic studio executives? Well, Ira may have gotten off easy compared to those people, but we fear his soul will be forever crushed the longer he stays with George.

In a lot of ways, Ira is they typical kind of character Rogen has played over and over again in movies, and not just the ones he does with Apatow. While I would love to see him take on riskier roles like the one he played in “Observe and Report,” he is the perfect match for Sandler’s endlessly cynical misanthrope of George. By the movie’s end, Rogen his performance proves to be the most underrated in the film, and he believably takes Ira from someone lacking in confidence to one who finds his voice with each standup routine he does to where he shows a strength he did not know he had. Rogen makes this transition feel seamless to where he had a stand out moment when he faces down Simmons and tries to make him see how his terminal disease has not come close to changing his outlook on life.

But the one person who almost steals “Funny People” is Apatow’s wife, Leslie Mann. Having already proved what a comedy dynamo she was in her husband’s previous films, there should be no more talk from those who believe she has only gotten this far as an actress because of nepotism.

Mann plays Laura, and George describes her to Ira as “the one that got away.” Laura was and still is George’s one true love, and he finds she still yearns for him even though their relationship came to a heartbreaking end when he cheated on her. This is a moment George appears to regret more than any other, and he becomes eager to make up for it as soon as he can. Laura never tries to hide her character’s undying affection for this man who is lonelier than most, and she is willing to end her marriage to an Australian soccer nut (Eric Bana, who is hilarious) who may be cheating on her as well. As Laura, Mann succeeds in making you fall for this character even while she selfishly tries to redirect her life without realizing the consequences of her actions.

There are a lot of strong elements working in favor for “Funny People,” but it doesn’t change the fact it is a deeply flawed movie. While it is good and worth watching, it will most likely be seen as one of Apatow’s weakest movies. I do like how he dared to go in a slightly different direction with this movie compared to what he has given us previously, but the balance between comedy and drama is off kilter most of the time. For many, I don’t think it will be entirely clear as to whether they are watching something comic or very serious.

Plus, at over two hours long, this movie really could have been shorter. I’m usually cool with long movies, but only if they can justify their length. It is way too easy to come off as self-indulgent when making a three-hour epic. “Funny People’s” length does cut deeply into its comic momentum, and there are spots where it things really dragged. It does pick up towards the end, but the story still could have used a bit more tightening.

Still, I really did like “Funny People” because it shows how Apatow still succeeds in giving us characters and situations which feel very real on an emotional level. With him taking his established formulas in a different direction, it is clear his work will continue to grow with each successive project he takes on.

I also love the brilliant cameos he manages to extract from big celebrities in his films. One scene in “Funny People” has George meeting up with a lot of famous comedians like Norm McDonald, Andy Dick (wow), Charles Fleischer, Collin Quinn and Sarah Silverman who has one of the movie’s funniest scenes. But the biggest surprise cameo to be found here is Eminem’s as I never expected to see him in any movie, let alone one directed by Apatow. Seeing him dissing Ray Romano provides us with an unforgettable moment where Ira ends up saying to Ray, “I thought everybody loved you.”

One perception about “Funny People” which needs to be cleared up is that it is not what many would call a “disease movie.” It is really to Apatow’s credit here that he never gets all mushy on us like many others would have when it comes to films about people who think they are facing certain death. George’s arc here is much like the character Michael Keaton played in “Clean and Sober.” In the process of trying to improve themselves and become better people, they end up fooling themselves to where they think they are changing for the better, but are instead acting more selfishly than they realize. Their attempts to help those in desperate situations reveal just how self-involved they are, and it just gets worse for them from there. It is not until the climax which has them at a place where they realize what they truly need to do to move on from a fractured past.

“Funny People” is definitely worth seeing. Just don’t go in with the normal set of expectations you have for the average Apatow production because things are a little different here. It definitely has some hilarious moments and dramatic ones, and Sandler makes it clear to us he can be a great actor when given the right material. It is also an intimate look at the fame and success one person experiences, and of how damaging and isolating it can be.

This project was really a long time coming for both Apatow and Sandler because they did share an apartment when they first moved out to Los Angeles. “Funny People” actually starts off with home video footage of them making prank phone calls which has them laughing in hysterics. It is meant to be a look of innocence which fame forever changes, but at least we can see how in real life these two funny men have their families to keep their egos in balance. George Simmons is simply the person each of them would have become if they weren’t careful.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Get Him to The Greek’ Allows Us to Forget about Sarah Marshall

Get Him to the Greek movie poster

We have sequels and franchise reboots or remakes up the wazoo this summer, but it feels like it has been forever since we had a movie spin-off. I know there are tons of them on television these days, but TV spinoffs seem to be a necessity, especially with shows like “Law & Order” and “CSI.” We’re gonna have “Law & Order: Los Angeles” in the fall, proving the cancellation of the original “Law & Order” never ended anything. Personally, I’m waiting for “Law & Order: Barstow” and “CSI: Chico.” Now those would be the ones to really shake things up!

In fact, the last time we had a movie spin-off was “US Marshalls” which took Tommy Lee Jones’ character of Sam Gerard from “The Fugitive” and gave him his own movie. Looking back, it was more of a remake of “The Fugitive” than anything else.

Now we have “Get Him To The Greek” which takes Russell Brand’s character of spaced-out rock star Aldous Snow from “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and has him starring in his own movie movie. Give Hollywood some credit here for being a little more creative than usual. By making a movie based on a supporting character from another, they show an air of confidence they usually only pretend to have.

Whereas Aldous was drug free in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” he is shown to have fallen off the wagon big time in this one as we watch him suffering the aftereffects of a horrible song he wrote and recorded called “African Child.” The song was declared to be the worst song of the decade, and it places second to apartheid as the worst thing to happen to Africa. The love of his life, Jackie Q (Rose Byrne from “28 Weeks Later”), ends up leaving him along with their son Naples, and he proceeds to go on one drinking/drug binge after another as his life goes from worst to intolerable. Then he hits rock bottom, but this doesn’t stop his spiral any.

Several years later, a record company intern named Aaron Green (Jonah Hill) brings up at a meeting how it is coming up on the 10-year anniversary of when Aldous performed a concert at the Greek Theater, one which resulted in one of the best-selling live albums of all time. After Aldous confirmed with Aaron’s boss, Sergio (Sean Combs), that he will do a new show to celebrate this occasion, Sergio sends him out to England to fetch Aldous and to make sure he makes it to the concert on time.

Judd Apatow is of course behind this one as a producer, and the setup reminded me a lot of his movie “Funny People.” Big fan meets his celebrity idol, discovers being a celebrity can be the loneliest place of all, and they somehow connect at the end in a way they never thought possible. But this one is just a flat-out comedy and has none of the dramatic edge of “Funny People.” Its humor is vulgar and crude, but like all good Apatow productions, it also has a heart.

Like “Knocked Up,” “Get Him To The Greek” exists in the entertainment world. Hearing Aaron talk about how a new concert will spur large revenue for the record company, allowing them to re-release Snow’s back catalog in new remastered editions with bonus material struck a cord with me. I always fall for this stuff myself; remastered CD’s which make you actually feel like you’re in the room with the band as they jam together. I have been an addict of these remastered editions ever since I bought the one for Eric Clapton’s “Behind the Sun.”

This is not to mention all the cameos from artists like Pink and television personalities including Meredith Vieira from the “Today” show. You even have Mario Lopez and Kurt Loder poking fun at their public perception, something they probably would not have done ten years ago. “Get Him To The Greek” does not take place in some fairy tale world where everything ends up all nice and tidy. The laughs end up stinging much more here because they remind us of all those celebrity controversies the media thrusts at us every single day.

Russell Brand’s own drug addled past has been chronicled for some time now, so part of the fascination with watching him here is figuring out where he ends and Aldous Snow begins. Regardless of how out there he may seem in the media, there is something about his personality that makes us watch his every move. Not once does he do anything to hide his character’s hedonistic ways, and he scores one solid laugh after another. I’m not sure what to say about him as an actor because I haven’t really seen him in anything else but watching him again as this character was indeed worthwhile.

Jonah Hill also was in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” as a waiter, but here he plays an entirely different character. From “Superbad” to “Funny People,” he’s been basically playing the same kind of role over and over again. Here, he plays his most grown-up character to date. As Aaron Green, he also gets to lose his trademark hairdo which makes him look like Little Orphan Annie. Clearly, his high school days are behind him, and he has us laughing at the most insane and compromising positions his character keeps stumbling into. Hill even has a great “Pulp Fiction” kind of moment, but I leave it to you to discover it for yourself.

But while Brand stole every other scene in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” he has this movie stolen from him by Sean Combs. That’s right, Puff Diddy is in this movie as record company executive Sergio Roma, and it allows him to parody his own image as a hip hop entrepreneur. What I loved about his performance is you never get the feeling he was trying to be funny. The more serious he gets, the more gut-bustlingly hilarious he becomes, and no one sells the term “mindfuck” the way he does here. It’s easy to fall into the trap of playing for laughs instead of playing the scene, but Combs never falls victim to it here.

You also have some nice supporting performances from actors like Colm Meaney, the “Star Trek” journeyman actor who plays Aldous’ father Jonathan, and he makes this man anything but a father figure. Having used his drug addicted son for his own gain, it is very surprising these two actually bother to be in the same room together. Rose Byrne also has some great moments as the love of Aldous’ life, Jackie Q, and her own music is ridiculously controversial in its own terms.

“Get Him to The Greek” was written and directed by Nicholas Stoller who also helmed “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” Stoller does good work here, but he does let the pace drag towards the end to where there are lulls where you are waiting for the next big explosion of laughter. All the same, comedy is hard work, so you have to give him credit for the loud laughs he does get out of us.

Is this as good as “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”? Not quite. In fact, “MacGruber” was a funnier movie in retrospect, regardless of its audience not showing up when it was released. The plot itself is no different from a lot of road trip comedies, and you could compare this one a bit to John Hughes’ “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” when you think about it. Still, I had a lot of fun with it, and it is easily more fun than a “Geoffrey.” Trust me; just see the movie and then you will know what I am talking about. I’m sick of giving away the best parts of movies anyway.

* * * out of * * * *