Saturday 25 October 2008

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008)

Saturday 25 October 2008
Director: Nicholas Stoller
Writer: Jason Segel

Yet another comedy from producer Judd Apatow's stable; this one written by and starring Jason Segel, an alumni from his cancelled TV show Freaks & Geeks. Segel plays Peter Bretter, a slobby composer of music for "Crime Scene: Scene Of The Crime", a cheesy but successful TV show starring his eponymous girlfriend Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell). Peter's life hits a crisis when he's dumped by Sarah and decides to get over this split by holidaying in Hawaii -- where events worsen thanks to the ill-fated presence of Sarah with her new lover, English rock star Aldous Snow (Russell Brand).

Forgetting Sarah Marshall is a rom-com that focuses on the male side of a relationship breakup, intended to give things a more raucous energy that stretches to three glimpses of full male nudity (for those of you who gauge raucousness in penis shots).

It's also a thinly-disguised geek fantasy; where a man who loves puppets, and spends his days eating cereal in his pants while doing Gandalph impressions, can somehow woo a babe of Kristen Bell's caliber and celebrity. And then snag himself Mila Kunis on the rebound. Together with Seth Rogen's ability to charm Katherine Heigl into bed in Knocked Up, nerds landing hotties has become a recurring feature in Apatow's oeuvre.

Regardless of the central only-in-the-movies problem, Jason Segel crafts a fairly decent comedy that actually tells a story and doesn't rely on gross-out gags. The lack of truly memorable moments is a big disappointment, though -- as nothing here stands a chance of entering the pop-culture consciousness. Segel himself has a schlubby appeal that reminded me of Judge Reinhold (make of that what you will), and Kristen Bell's real-life leap from the small-screen of Veronica Mars (echoed in her character's career trajectory) should benefit from her appealing work here.

Comedian Russell Brand's infamous audition won him this plum role (even necessitating rewrites to take advantage of his rocker looks and flowery vocabulary) -- but, while Americans clearly found him droll, likeable and oddly charming, his existing British fans might be disappointed that his role is actually quite restrictive and bland. Brand's controversial and divisive persona is sandpapered into tedium by a script that can't tap into his act thanks to a lack of familiarity with Brand beyond superficial looks. Brand is just given a sketchy, eccentric character to make the most of.

In fact, it's Mila Kunis who winds up making the best impression with the least effort. The beautiful Family Guy vocalist (ironically, she plays despised wallflower Meg) co-stars as the radiant receptionist of the Oahu hotel everyone stays in. Despite the fact her role as Rachel is perfunctory in most respects, Kunis brings a daffy charm and likeability that intentionally eclipses Bell. I never for once believed she'd hook-up with a goofball like Peter (especially when his Dracula puppet musical aspiration is revealed to her), but that's down to the script's silly wish-fulfilment angle. Kunis tries to make it work, and generally does well. More of her, please.

Small roles for Apatow regular Paul Rudd and Jonah Hill (Superbad) aren't very good. Rudd's surfing instructor is forgettable and unnecessary, while the overrated Hill is saddled with a terrible super-fan character -- only existing to take verbal slaps from his idol Snow. In many ways, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is only really worth watching as a kind of pop-culture precursor of future projects: Bell, Kunis and Brand will undoubtedly use this as a solid launch-pad; Segel has already been tapped to mastermind a Muppets comeback, and Get Me To The Greek (a spin-off film with Brand and Hill) is already being worked on.

Overall, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is certainly not a massive waste of time, but it's far from the laugh-filled genius you may be expecting. It's too long, awkwardly-paced, flabby and very contrived. The performances are strong enough to pull you through its many dry spots, but they're not strong enough to make you forgive a lack of big, memorable belly-laughs.

Crucially, it's just so implausible that Bell would date Segel, that the concept of their break-up never works as a realistic dilemma you can invest your emotions in. I don't blame Segel for writing a movie where he's being fought over by two sexy girls in sunny Hawaii, but it's so obviously a movie-fantasy that I wasn't concerned about anyone's fate.

Yes, I've forgotten Sarah Marshall already.

Universal Pictures
Budget: $30 million
111 minutes (theatrical) / 118 minutes (unrated)

Cast: Jason Segel (Peter Bretter), Kristen Bell (Sarah Marshall), Mila Kunis (Rachel Jansen), Russell Brand (Aldous Snow), Bill Hader (Brian Bretter), Liz Cackowski (Liz Bretter), Maria Thayer (Wyoma), Jack McBrayer (Darald), Jonah Hill (Matthew), Paul Rudd (Chuck), Alejandro Anzaldua (Jack Fire), Jason Bateman (Animal Instincts Detective) & William Baldwin (Billy Baldwin/Detective Hunter Rush)