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 * * * *