The key to nearly loving Forgetting Sarah Marshall – inconsistency frustrates true ardor – lies in recognizing the bravery of screenwriter/lead Jason Segel, who risks his manhood by displaying its flaccid averageness twice throughout the course of the film. If we venerate Humphrey Bogart for playing pathetic in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre or Jimmy Stewart bawling at the conclusion of The Naked Spur, we really ought to give it up for an actor putting it out there. For this reason alone, Segel deserves to be a big, bright, shining star.
The old school would surely frown upon Segel’s willingness to humiliate himself in the name of love (being overpowered by the fairer sex didn’t exactly do wonders for Tom Ewell’s career), but emotional cripples need their heroes, too. It’s not like Segel is inventing a type; Nick Andopolis, Eric from Undeclared and, now, Peter Bretter… these men exist. They flatter until they smother, and willfully place themselves in a subservient position. They mistake deification for devotion, obsessiveness for affection, and often can’t function on their own. They’re the men who get spooned.
Peter’s journey in the Judd Apatow-produced, Nicholas Stoller-directed Forgetting Sarah Marshall is a little about personal growth (symbolized by the cliched, near-death experience of cliff jumping), but mostly it’s about finding a woman who doesn’t mind holding his leash. This creates a certain amount of distance between the viewer and the protagonist (you spend most of the movie cringing rather than identifying), but Segel is so ingratiating in this kind of role that you forgive him his wussiness. And it’s not like most guys can’t see themselves clinging a little too tightly to Kristin Bell; though her Sarah Marshall lacks the wit and pluck of our beloved Veronica Mars, she still has the “cute” market ruthlessly cornered.
Segel’s Peter is a television composer with dreams of staging a Jim Steinman-esque Dracula musical with puppets. He scores the show in which Sarah stars (Crime Scene: Scene of the Crime), and the thought of him droning out insipid incidental music to accompany her routine performances twenty-four weeks out of the year perfectly encapsulates the facile nature of their relationship. If Peter were capable of being self-critical, he might realize that his workmanlike odes are a perfect match for Sarah’s career-obsessed personality; she’s not artist enough to understand his off-center, but heartfelt aspirations.
And while we see this in flashbacks, we never really get what brought them together in the first place; ergo, the tragedy of losing Sarah Marshall hinges not on heartbreak but on a lack of self-awareness. Peter mistakenly believes that Sarah loves him as completely as he loves her; he thinks she finds his kooky passion project and his penchant for hanging around the house in his sweats adorable. So when he receives his walking papers (in the altogether, of course), his horrified reaction is at once comic and completely unrelatable. Unlike Seth Rogen’s stoner father-to-be in Knocked Up, we can’t brush this off to immaturity; it’s weakness bordering on psychosis.
But sincerity, even the slightly mad kind, goes a long way, so we hang with Peter as he hightails it for Hawaii to get Sarah Marshall out of his mind – which proves a horrendous failure when he discovers she’s booked into the same resort with her new beau, a whacked-out British pop star named Aldous Snow (Russell Brand). That Peter defiantly refuses to change his reservation is 100-percent relatable; though he holes up in his room and cries himself to sleep, at least he’s trying to assert his masculinity. For some reason, his impaired emotional state interests a free-spirited hotel clerk, Rachel (Mila Kunis, going toe-to-toe with Bell in the cute department); obviously, she’s going to be the catalyst for Peter breaking out of his self-pity and seizing the day and all that conventionally unconventional stuff. And while Rachel threatens to be the least interesting character in the film, Kunis steps up and delivers a knowing, sexy performance that all but dominates the movie. Girl’s a star.
Her only serious competition in the scene-stealing department is Brand, who’s as spaced-out as she is grounded. He’s at his best when attempting to bond with the emasculated Peter, who probably admires Aldous (for his success and his centeredness) more than he hates him for being a flighty fraud of a celebrity (and, not for nothing, banging his precious on the nightly). Aldous also draws the Annie Wilkes-ish attention of a resort employee played with convincing creepiness by Jonah Hill; sadly, while their scenes all start out promising enough, they kind of trail off into uninspired riffing.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall may not entirely succeed as a romantic comedy, but it’s as funny as anything I’ve seen since Superbad, and you at least get the sense that Segel and Stoller* are attempting to work their own variation on the Apatow aesthetic. Right now, Stoller is the most in need of improvement; fortunately, the film’s inventive, puppet show finale indicates that he’s not just some point-and-shoot hack. These guys are on to something, and I think their breakthrough will arrive when they realize Segel’s neediness is more frightening than cuddly. Go back to Undeclared‘s Eric and dial it up to Liotta.
*They oughta be songwriters.