Eugene Weekly : Movies : 4.24.08


Meeting Jason Segel
Another Apatow player makes his mark

FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL: Directed by Nicholas Stoller. Written by Jason Segel. Produced by Judd Apatow and Shauna Robertson. Cinematography, Russ T. Alsobrook. Music, Lyle Workman. Starring Jason Segel, Kristen Bell, Mila Kunis, Bill Hader, Paul Rudd and Russell Brand. Universal Pictures, 2008. R. 112 minutes.

Yes, Forgetting Sarah Marshall was co-produced by Judd Apatow (you know, the Knocked Up guy). But let’s note that Forgetting is, yes, a very funny film in which an ordinary, rather lazy, only slightly soft in the middle guy finds love with a beautiful woman, and no, the dude-centric, hot-as-lava Apatow camp is probably not the place to look for an equivalent sex comedy from a woman’s perspective. Then, at least for the duration of this movie, let’s move on. There are other creative folks here: Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller, Forgetting Sarah Marshall‘s writer/star and director, are cinematic new kids with Apatowian pasts. Segel, best known for his current role on How I Met Your Mother, was in Freaks & Geeks, and Stoller was a writer for Undeclared.

The gang’s all here: Matthew (Jonah Hill), Rachel (Mila Kunis), Peter (Jason Segel), Aldous (Russell Brand) and Sarah (Kristen Bell) brace themselves for dinner.

Segel may find himself best known as the guy who drops trou on camera with remarkable abandon. Actually, as lovelorn Peter Bretter, he does most things on camera with remarkable abandon, including cry like a baby and sleep around in an attempt to get over being dumped by his girlfriend, Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell), who stars on an amusingly deadpan crime show called Crime Scene: Scene of the Crime. Without Sarah, Peter’s life consists mostly of complaining to his best friend Brian (Bill Hader), who eventually suggests that Peter get away for a while. And so off Peter goes, landing in Hawaii only to find himself at the same resort where Sarah and her new British rock star boyfriend, Aldous Snow (the priceless Russell Brand), are staying. Awkward much?

Oh, plenty awkward. And plenty funny, too. Segel mined his past for breakup gems; the naked breakup scene at the film’s beginning is apparently based on some fact. Throughout, Segel, Stoller and the film’s willing cast have turned the most painful relationship moments into humor in a way that makes them feel universal — even when they’re taking place at a lush Hawaiian resort and involve famous people (perhaps the nondescript cinematography helps with that almost-normal feel). Press materials call the film a “romantic disaster comedy,” and to that description I’d gently add the word “fantasy.” For in Hawaii, of course, Peter meets a gorgeous, funny, free-spirited, slightly guarded resort employee, Rachel (Mila Kunis), who first saves him from Sarah-related humiliation and then, gradually, falls for his clumsy charms. And what could possibly be a better way to get over Sarah than to get together with a new love right in front of her eyes?

Sarah Marshall is a balancing act of lovely proportions. There are dick jokes aplenty, ridiculous sex scenes, a puppet opera and unforgettable one-liners, many courtesy of Brand, Paul Rudd as stoned surfer Kunu, Da’Vone McDonald as wisdom-dispensing bartender Dwayne and Jonah Hill as an Aldous-obsessed waiter. But there’s also warmth and depth. Sarah isn’t a one-note bitch goddess but a conflicted, insecure, catty, occasionally honest young woman whose layers are revealed as the film progresses; likewise, Rachel isn’t a perfect emotional savior but a complex person who brings a straightforward, carefree nature and her own romantic issues into Peter’s world. In a beautiful, painful scene in the hotel lobby, the two women have a stilted conversation in which it’s clear they’re not as thoroughly unalike as they initially seem. They’re both smart, and they’re both wounded. And they’re both going to have an effect on the boy whose attempts to become something more like a man so often go horribly awry. Forgetting Sarah Marshall is very aware of where the gateway to mindless humiliation comedy lies, but it stays — precariously — on the side of something both absurd and realistic, over-the-top and dead-on. If you wanted to, you could say Apatow, following the poorly received Drillbit Taylor, is back on his (producing) game. But you could also say that Jason Segel, who carries Forgetting Sarah Marshall on his sloped but straightening shoulders, is just starting his.