Monday, May 5, 2008

Movie Review: Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Directed by Nicholas Stoller
Starring Jason Segel, Kristen Bell, Mila Kunis, Russell Brand


Plots for romantic comedies are never especially original and since Forgetting Sarah Marshall so helpfully provides the gist of the movie right in the title, I'll keep the synopsis portion of this review brief: television score composer Peter Bretter goes on a Hawaiian vacation to forget his actress ex-girlfriend only to discover that she is staying at the same resort with her new rock star boyfriend. Awkward antics ensue.

Written by and starring long-time Apatow regular Jason Segel, Forgetting Sarah Marshall inevitably must be compared to the recent slew of Judd Apatow produced movies that have flooded the market. For better or for worse all of those films have adhered to the same There's Something About Mary model of infusing third rate romantic comedy plotlines with elevated levels of profanity and risque humor and then casting overweight or unattractive male comedians opposite B-list starlets to draw in male and female fans alike. Though undeniably financially successful - somewhere studio execs are still in disbelief over just how many 18-24 year old males they tricked into buying tickets for 9 Months II - this model has yielded films that lack comedic consistency and that usually fall short even of the modest story standards set by the unapologetically trite and predictable romantic comedy genre. I recently read an article on The Asylum, the company that produces straight to DVD mockbusters like Transmorphers and Snakes on a Train, and found an uncanny parallel between their business model and Apatow's. When their Japanese buyers requested a submarine movie - a genre their monster craving US buyers had no interest in - Asylum responded by inserting a giant squid and calling it 30,000 Leagues Under the Sea. As Asylum exec David Latt noted, "the big submarine battles made the Japanese happy, the giant squid satisfied our domestic buyers, and we got to make a really fun movie."

Like Asylum, Apatow draws on a small pool of writers, directors, and actors to work on his films and everyone involved seems to be having an excellent time (check or the DVD extras of any of these films for further proof of the non-stop behind the scenes fun). Although some of Apatow's early players have graduated on to careers of varying levels of success (Linda Cardellini for example has done some quality dramatic work under the radar) most alums have had their greatest success working within the safe confines of the Apatow world (see Seth Rogen and the otherwise unemployed Martin Starr). Jason Segel has been working with Apatow since the Freaks & Geeks days and although he has enjoyed some success outside of the Apatow world on the sitcom How I Met Your Mother, major film roles have not been forthcoming and it comes as no surprise that Segel returns to the fold for his first starring feature.

Although Forgetting Sarah Marshall has the requisite raunchy humor of its predecessors, it is far less concerned with hiding its romantic comedy roots and as such avoids the filmic identity crisis that crippled Knocked Up. Segel throws in plenty of frontal male nudity and similar low brow sight gags at us early on but the film quickly settles into a comfortable and predictable girl leaves boy, boy meets new girl who helps him rediscover his passion for life love story. Segel has been playing variations on the same well-intentioned, romantic screw-up since his days as Nick on Freaks & Geeks and, while he may not be proving himself to be especially versatile, there's no denying that he has the part down cold. As per usual with Apatow films, the best lines all go to male characters and the female parts are appallingly one-dimensional and underwritten. In past films, talented actresses like Catherine Keener and Leslie Mann have managed to coax substantial performances from woefully thin material but Kristen Bell and Mila Kunis lack their acting chops. They do as well as can be expected with what they're given to work with but both end up spending long stretches of the film with nothing to do but stand around looking pretty (ironically, one of the few scenes that allows them to show some personality actually involves them mutually complimenting one another on being pretty). Despite these shortcomings there are some bright spots in the movie. There is genuine chemistry between Segel and Bell and newcomer Russell Brand as Sarah's new rock star beau steals every scene he's in; unfortunately, pointless, momentum killing cameos from Apatow regulars take precedence over fleshing out these more interesting main characters.

Chances are you've already made your mind up about the Apatow family of films and if you loved Knocked Up and Superbad you'll probably find this entry lacking; however, if you found Knocked Up derivative and Superbad insufferable, you might find this one surprisingly watchable. Forgetting Sarah Marshall is a much more modest film and as such a more successful one; it makes a play for fans across genres, but for the most part Segel sticks to his strengths and the result is an unremarkable yet respectable romantic comedy for young adults.

Final verdict: No matter what side of the fence you're on in regards to Apatow films, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is lightweight, unoffensive fare worth a matinee-priced ticket or rental.


Christina Spinelli said...

Great review! I recently saw this film & on a whole enjoyed it [although at times was slightly offended]. Did you have a favorite moment, Josh?
When Jason Segel was imitating that scene from Lord of the Rings all alone was my favorite. Also his rock opera, but only when first performed in the bar.

joshua francis said...

Likewise enjoyed the Lord of the Rings scene, but I think my favorite was Aldous's reaction to Sarah faking an orgasm.

In general, I found this less offensive than similar movies. I usually don't mind vulgar humor as long as it isn't lazy or uninspired.I got a pretty decent laugh out of Jason Segel announcing that he needed to B his L on someone's Ts.