SXSW Movie Review: Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Possibly the unfunniest comedy ever made, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is…. Wait, let's back up. That's completely backward. Written by actor Jason Segal (Knocked Up Undeclared, Freaks and Geeks), Forgetting Sarah Marshall is the kind of romantic comedy straight men can get behind and not just because Segel unveils his manliness more times than you can count (actually four full-on frontal nudity shots, but who's keeping count?). Forgetting Sarah Marshall belongs to the sub-genre of romantic comedies that turn on losing then finding love with the "right" person (as opposed to the "right-now" person). It also fits into what one critic or reviewer has called, semi-pretentiously, the "cinema of discomfort" (actually, it was this critic who said that), comedies that center on putting characters in socially awkward situation after socially awkward situation (e.g., Meet the Fockers, Meet the Parents).

For Peter Bretter (Jason Segel), a television composer with dreams of putting together a rock opera involving Sesame Street-style puppets, vampires, and eternal love, it doesn't get more socially awkward when his girlfriend of five years, Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell), the star of a CSI- television series, Crime Scene, dumps him for an English rock star, Aldous Snow (Russell Brand, a genuine comedic find). After a string of one-night stands, each more disastrous than the last, Peter takes his step-brother Brian's (Bill Hader, deadpan, perfect) advice and goes on vacation to Hawaii, a place Sarah always talked about visiting but never did. Not coincidentally, Sarah and Snow are already in Hawaii. Worse, they're staying in the same hotel. Preferring to torture himself further, Peter takes the suite right next to Sarah and Aldous.

Luckily for Peter, a hotel employee, Racheal (Mila Kunis), takes first pity, then actual interest in him, hanging with him after hours, introducing him to confidence-building activities, and all around making him feel better about himself and the break-up. Of course, just as Peter gets closer to Racheal, Sarah begins to have second doubts about a future with the self-absorbed snow, setting up the inevitable choice for Peter: a future with Racheal or the past with Sarah. Along the way, Peter takes life lessons from a stoner surfing instructor (Paul Rudd), observes relationships around him sputter or take off, all the while running into another hotel employee, Matthew (Jonah Hill), who plays on Peter's anxieties and doubts about himself.

Segel's script, with an able assist from first-time feature film director Nicholas Stoller (Fun With Dick and Jane, Undeclared), explores, in near-excruciating detail, the heartbreak and despair that follows the abrupt end of a romantic relationship (i.e., the dreaded falling out of love scenario). For Peter, and by extension, moviegoers, it's all discomfort all the time from the moment Peter loses Sarah to the moment, if and when it comes, when Peter comes to a bit of self-realization about who he wants to be with and what he wants to do with life, career wise (hint: it doesn't involve continued work as a composer for television shows). That and plenty of sex-related humor to help hide the fact that yes, indeed, we're (the "we" refers to straight men in the audience) watching a romantic comedy and thoroughly enjoying it.

Before we forget, though, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is produced by Judd Apatow, the writer, producer, and/or director behind Superbad, Knocked Up, The 40 Year-Old Virgin), Undeclared, and Freaks and Geeks. It was Apatow who encouraged Segel to try his hand at scriptwriting as a potential star vehicle for himself or barring that, an alternative career. Forgetting Sarah Marshall has plenty in common with Apatow's work, up to and including the slacker/loser type with the impossibly hot, super-bright girlfriend or who ends up with an impossibly hot, super-bright girlfriend. Call it the triumph of the geek or, if you more cynical, a triumph of marketing. Either way, Apatow's films tend to depend on sex-based humor and plenty of awkwardness related to sex. Forgetting Sarah Marshall is no different.

Apatow didn't direct Forgetting Sarah Marshall, though. Screenwriter-turned-director Nicholas Stoller (Fun With Dick and Jane, Undeclared) did and thankfully, he doesn't let any attempt at a visual style get in the way of telling Peter's story as simply as possible (a must when we're discussing comedies). Segel shows surprising range, especially in the early going, when Peter can barely contain his emotional anguish at losing Sarah. Given what Segel's shown here, it'd be interesting to see him take on a serious dramatic role. Of course, after multiple full frontal shots, drama might not be in Segel's immediate future, but he probably won't mind (either that or he can continue screenwriting).

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10