Review: Forgetting Sarah Marshall
4 stars (out of 5)
by R. Kurt Osenlund
By now, word of actor Jason Segel's sporadic, spontaneous nudity in Forgetting Sarah Marshall has grown from whispers to headlines, showing up within or alongside practically every review of the romantic comedy, which raked in $17 million in its opening weekend alone. Since American audiences tend to be as prude as they are crude, Segel's full frontal fearlessness probably sold more than a few of those tickets. However, there are plenty of reasons to get out to see this box-office smash that have nothing to do with a few goofy – and ultimately, inconsequential - “shocker” moments.
Peter Bretter (Segel) is devastated when his girlfriend, renowned television actress Sarah Marshall (played by renowned television actress Kristen Bell of Veronica Mars), dumps him for another man after six long years of devotion. Desperate to end his post-break-up depression and quell the endless reminders of his ex, Peter decides to take a much-needed vacation to Hawaii. Disaster strikes upon his arrival, when he discovers Sarah staying at his very same resort – with her new lover. For the next four days, Peter faces the ultimate test of getting over his former sweetheart while her replacement romance is unavoidably dangled in his face. Along the way, one riotously uncomfortable situation after another presents itself, and if Peter can survive them all, he might just be able to find some new romance of his own and finally forget Sarah Marshall.
That's one heck of a blueprint for a five-star comedy, and Sarah Marshall is almost constructed to perfection. Written by Segel and produced by king of funny Judd Apatow, it's a fine addition to Apatow Productions' growing resume of hits, which already includes The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Superbad, and Knocked Up, in which Segel had a small, but scene-stealing role. Writing himself in as the star, Segel doesn't quite reach leading-man status, but then that's never been the aim of the Apatow gang's flicks anyway. Each features a schlubby, somewhat pitiful everyman, who must overcome the constraints of his ordinariness in order to steal the heart of an impossibly beautiful girl. Sarah Marshall spins that same formula in a fairly new direction by making the desirable female someone to get over rather than win over.
The irony is that in all of these movies (which are obviously targeted to the big-hearted-but-still-horny Regular Joe's of the world), the luster and talent of the women involved end up stealing the spotlight from the relatable lead character. In Virgin, Catherine Keener's seemingly effortless acting skills couldn't match the blaring volume of Steve Carrell's chest-waxing sexual novice, but they certainly raised the film's integrity level. In Knocked Up, Seth Rogen's lovably immature slacker got top billing, but the real star of the pregnancy comedy was Grey's Anatomy's Katherine Heigl. The gig turned the blonde bombshell into an A-lister, and launched her career well beyond the confines of Seattle Grace Hospital's OR.
Sarah Marshall is spiced up by two vibrant women, both of whom are more interesting and entertaining than Segel's comparatively boring – albeit sweet – Peter. There's Ms. Marshall herself, a role that will no doubt do the same for Bell as Knocked Up did for Heigl (she shows a smart maturity that's a long way's away from the Nancy Drew-ish antics of Ms. Mars). Then there's Rachel, the dark haired, caramel-skinned hotel manager played by another TV alum, That '70's Show's Mila Kunis. Kunis is even more of a standout, presenting a splendid naturalness that has “the next girl-next-door” written all over it. Her and Peter's adorable courtship is the picture's beating heart, but she's so gorgeous and magnetic that you almost begin to forget he's even there. There's one scene in which Sarah and Rachel size up one another and compliment one another's beauty. It should be in the trailer.
That about 90 percent of Forgetting Sarah Marshall takes place in Hawaii's picturesque tropical landscape shows just how vital a film's setting can be for its success. The sunny and sandy vistas do wonders for the picture, always feeding the viewer eye candy even when the intermittently stupefying humor starts to get stale. Whether it's Peter's surfing lesson with a stoner played by Paul Rudd, dinner at a beachside restaurant with a pathetic waiter played by Apatow favorite Jonah Hill, or cliff jumping into a crystal blue lagoon, director Nicholas Stoller does a terrific job of making the audience feel as though we too are on an island getaway. He doesn't always guide Segel's script and/or performance to such impressive destinations, and the movie too often narrows its demographic to the same lumpish ne'er-do-wells these comedies insist on profiling. When it gets out of its own way though, Forgetting Sarah Marshall scores big laughs, even if it's not quite the sum of its “parts”.