‘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 * * * *

‘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 * * * *

‘Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie’ is Wonderfully Entertaining

Captain Underpants movie poster

Sooner or later, we were bound to have a superhero, animated or live action, wearing just underwear. The main characters of “Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie” tell the audience how superheroes typically look like they are in their pajamas, so they have created one who is wearing little to nothing. Most of the time, superheroes are wearing things we would never wear to the office, and there are others who look like they are barely dressed as it is. With Captain Underpants, we now have a heroic character who wears underwear as well as a cape, and he shows no shame in his appearance. Why should he anyway? He’s a superhero, and one look at him will confirm whether he prefers boxers or briefs.

“Captain Underpants” is a series of children’s novels written by Dav Pilkey who channeled his class clown behavior and learning disabilities into them, and now it has been adapted to the big screen by Dreamworks Animation. I had no idea what to expect from this “First Epic Movie” as I am unfamiliar with these books, but I am delighted to say the filmmakers have created an animated film which appeals to both kids and adults. While kids can revel in the adventures these characters have, the adults will get a kick out of the subversive comic elements which remind us of the problems we Americans experience with our malfunctioning education system. Just keep in mind, a lot of these problems began occurring before Betsy DeVos became Secretary of Education.

Anyway, we are quickly introduced to the main characters, George Beard (Kevin Hart) and Harold Hutchins (Thomas Middleditch), a pair of fourth-graders and best friends who revel in entertaining their classmates with pranks and creating comic books in their treehouse which they have branded as the headquarters for their company, Treehouse Comix Inc. Their friendship, however, is threatened by the evil Mr. Krupp (Ed Helms), the elementary school principal. After one prank too many, Mr. Krupp, decides to tear them apart by putting them into separate classrooms. But our young heroes quickly turn the tables by hypnotizing him with a 3D Hypno Ring they got out of a cereal box, and this allows them to turn Mr. Krupp into their most popular comic book creation, Captain Underpants.

I loved how this movie touches on a child’s view of elementary school to where I was reminded of the years I spent there. The thought of being in a separate classroom from your best friend was a real fear as recess time never seemed long enough to hang out together. And yes, school did seem like a prison at times where the teachers, the bad ones anyway, look determined to suck the fun out of anything and everything while making us learn facts and dates, some of which will escape our minds in the distant future. Heck, the teachers need textbooks to be reminded of these same things.

But moreover, “Captain Underpants” reminds us of how powerful our imaginations were at that age. We had such vivid fantasy worlds playing in our heads, and we went to places and experienced adventures where we were always the hero. Seeing George and Harold bring these adventures to life in comic books should make you remember when your imaginary worlds were infinite in what they promised. While the forces of schoolwork and conformity loom large in their lives, and they will loom even larger as they get older, we root for these two kids to persevere as we are reminded of how children need time to play and create. I feels like, in this day and age, the fun of childhood has given way to preparing kids for those damned SATs even before they graduate from pre-school.

Okay, maybe I’m making “Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie” sound more serious than it has any right to be. In the end, this movie is all about fun as George and Harold try their best to keep their hypnotized principal in check even as his alter-ego of the Captain keeps him bouncing all over the place as he attempts to save those who don’t necessarily need saving. Seeing these two kids switch Mr. Krupp into Captain Underpants and vice versa makes for one of this movie’s funniest moments.

Of course, there proves to be an even bigger threat than Mr. Krupp here as the movie’s main villain, Professor Poopypants (Nick Kroll), comes to the elementary school as the new science teacher. His plan? To eradicate laughter from the planet as he has long become impatient with everybody not taking him seriously. Then again, how can anyone be taken seriously with a name like Poopypants? Just wait until you hear his full name.

Directed David Soren (“Turbo”) and screenwriter Nicholas Stoller (“Forgetting Sarah Marshall”) have given us a tale of good versus evil which is largely predictable, but they keep throwing left turns at us which keeps this movie feeling less so even when the climax is never in doubt. Not all the jokes work, but there are some which are priceless, and Professor Poppypants statement on the state of education is dead on. And yes, there are some fart jokes, but the ones here are far more creative than any which begged for your laughter in the abysmal “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul.

Both Hart and Middleditch have loads of playing the two fourth graders, and they remind you of the benefits of doing voiceovers in animated movies: you can get away with playing children even when you’re in your 30’s! As for Helms, you can always count on him to make a superhero sound so confident even as said superhero has yet to learn of his limits, of which there are many. Kroll has fun playing around with supervillain clichés as Professor Poopypants as he exploits the bad guy conventions which come with crazy hair and an all too thick accent. Jordan Peele, riding high on the success of “Get Out,” has a blast voicing the tattle tale we all love to hate, Melvin Sneedly. Kristen Schaal also co-stars as Edith, the school lunch lady whose shyness and closeted affections for Mr. Krupp she makes all the more palpable.

“Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie” may not go down as an animated classic, and its animation does pale in comparison to what Pixar typically comes up with, but it is filled with an abundance of imagination and cleverness which I did not expect to find. The filmmakers clearly have a great affection for the books of Dav Pilkey, and if this is to become Dreamworks’ next big animated franchise, it will be lots of fun to see where it goes from here.

By the way, does it really make sense that Principal Krupp would just turn right into the hero George and Harold created from their imaginations? Oh wait, it’s an animated movie. Who cares?

* * * out of * * * *