April 23, 2008

Movie Review: Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Last Fall saw the release of a movie that brought romantic comedy face to face with raunchy comedy as it told the story of a man seeking to find himself after getting trapped in a marriage that he did not expect. It saw the central character jet off to a tropical locale where he almost immediately found the person he was meant to be with, the only problem was that he was with his wife. That movie was The Heartbreak Kid starring Ben Stiller. You are probably wondering what that has to do with Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Well, the two films share some similarities in they both feature men who are unlucky in love, both end up in a vacationer's paradise, and both have to contend with a current and a past love. On the surface, they are quite similar when comparing broad strokes, however, that is where the similarities end.

FOCVNS_D048_00031[1]When you cut into them, you will find two movies that could not be more different. When I first saw the Stiller film, I sort of liked it. I enjoyed the combination of romance and raunch, but now that I am a bit further removed from it, it is easy to see why it was not a particularly good film. It is populated with unlikable characters that I have no real sympathy for. They got themselves into a mess without even thinking of the potential consequences, and the deeper they go, the less they care about doing what is right. On the other hand, Forgetting Sarah Marshall takes a simpler approach and builds characters to care about, comedy that springs organically from the situations, and has a much kinder, gentler soul than its cruel counterpart.

Peter Bretter (Jason Segel of How I Met Your Mother) is a nice guy. He works as composer for a popular primetime procedural called Crime Scene (a CSI knock-off), he also happens to be dating the shows attractive star, the titular Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell of Veronica Mars). Unfortunately, things are not going well for Peter as Sarah arrives at his apartment and promptly breaks up with him. This leads to a much talked about full frontal nude scene for one brave Jason Segel. It is a scene that works beautifully within the context, yes it does induce a twitter in the audience, but it reveals a hurt and vulnerable Peter at his most vulnerable.

FOCVNS_D028_00139[1]Following the break-up, Peter has a hard time dealing with being single and being forced to confront his feelings for his long time love. This becomes especially difficult after he discovers she is now dating ladies' man rock star Aldous Snow. So, in an effort to get away from these problems, he heads to Hawaii for a vacation. This proves to be even more troublesome as Sarah and Aldous also happen to be vacationing at the same resort. Fortunately, the young woman working the counter, Rachel (Mila Kunis), sympathizes and chooses to try and lift his spirits.

What follows is a laugh out loud comedy about dealing with separation, rediscovering one's self, and finding the strength to move on. When it arrives at its inevitable conclusion, it ends the way it is supposed to, in a fashion that you likely saw coming. What makes the film special, and places it head and shoulders above many comedies of this type, is the road it travels. It does not take your typical journey from point A to B to C, it bends, curves, and winds in other directions, directions that allow our characters to become more fully developed than one would expect. So, while the concept may seem one-note, it is much closer to an orchestral score, or at least a heart-felt pop song.

FOCVNS_D009_00027[1]The performances bring depth and interest, with no character being outright unlikable (although Aldous comes awfully close). Peter is a lovable schlub that stands in as the everyman with which to identify. Jason Segel does a wonderful job of making him seem pathetic, yet not so pathetic as to be annoying, he knows how to balance the performance to get the most bang for the buck. Kristen Bell brings an innate sexiness to Sarah, and while you do not want to like her for what she did to Peter, there are interesting sides to her personality that become exposed the further in we go. Mila Kunis, in her biggest role since the end of That 70's Show, shows great comic timing and shows she is not just another pretty face. She does a good job here and will likely have bigger things ahead of her because of it. That brings us to Russell Brand and his portrayal of Aldous Snow. He is the closest to a one note character that we get, and it could be argued that is all he is, I would argue that is what he is supposed to be, and he generates plenty of laughs because of it.

The supporting cast is peppered with Apatow regulars such as Bill Hader as Peter's disapproving step-brother, Jonah Hill as a weird waiter, and Paul Rudd as a brain-fried surf instructor. This trio, along with pretty much everyone else that appears onscreen, do a wonderful job of helping to propel this story forward and give it that surprising depth. Oh yes, I cannot forget Jack McBrayer (30 Rock) with his funny turn as a religiously minded newlywed on his honeymoon who quickly discovers that he has a lot to learn.

FOCVNS_D007_00492R[1]Jason Segel, in addition to starring, makes his screenwriting debut with Forgetting Sarah Marshall. It may be his first credited piece, and I am sure that Judd Apatow helped guide him; he has crafted a fine script that is injected with a healthy dose of heart while never forgetting that it is a comedy. The dialogue is smart, witty, and feels very real. Now, the situation may not exactly be realistic, but the way it flows it has a naturalistic feel that bolsters its believability.

At the helm is Nicholas Stoller, also making his debut, albeit as a director (previously penning Fun with Dick and Jane). His directorial style is laid back, letting the actors tell the story. This is not the type of film where you will find a flashy direction. Despite the lack of flash, the directing is solid.

Bottomline. This is one of the best films I have seen so far this year, and easily the best comedy. It is film that offers big laughs and outrageous situations while simultaneously being undeniably sweet and utterly human. It is a combination that serves the film well. It left me smiling as I left the theater knowing I saw something special.

Highly Recommended.


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