“Forgetting Sarah Marshall”

Remember: Just because a movie has been produced by Judd Apatow doesn't mean it's good.

Topics: Movies,

"Forgetting Sarah Marshall"

There’s danger in the air when a funny, perceptive writer and director becomes a tastemaker, a sort of guru who has knowingly or otherwise accepted the task of shaping what audiences want instead of simply giving it to them. Judd Apatow isn’t quite there — yet. But with “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” — which wasn’t written or directed by Apatow but is the latest picture to fall under his ever-expanding umbrella as producer — he moves one step closer to becoming a brand name rather than a breathing, thinking presence with a distinct sensibility.

“Forgetting Sarah Marshall” was directed by Nicholas Stoller (it’s his debut) and written by Jason Segel (one of the slacker sidekicks in “Knocked Up”), who also stars. And conceptually, at least — the plot involves an average-looking, underachieving guy who’s desperate to forget the beautiful, successful woman who’s just dumped him — the picture suggests it has the Apatow touch. In the two movies he directed, 2005′s “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and last year’s “Knocked Up,” Apatow dug deeply into everyday insecurities and located, instead of just plain old neuroses, people’s capacity to surprise even themselves.

But “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” is less Apatow than it is Apatowistic. Behind every gag — and some of them are inspired, if poorly executed — you can hear the scratchy sound of a checklist item being ticked off or, worse, the not-so-faint jingle of cashing in. Segel plays Peter Bretter, a slackadaisical composer whose job is to supply music for a hit crime show, although the chief requirements of the gig seem to consist of slouching around the house in sweat pants while eating cereal from a giant mixing bowl; the piano in the corner is just part of the furniture. Peter is also the boyfriend of the show’s star, Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell, of the late, great “Veronica Mars”). When Sarah drops him, suddenly and unceremoniously, for a pompously elfin English rock star named Aldous Snow (Russell Brand), Peter — now not just lazy but lazy and depressed — burrows even deeper into his sweat-pants cocoon. To get away from it all he heads for Hawaii, only to discover that Sarah and her new beau are booked into the same resort hotel — although there is some hope in the fact that one of the resort’s comely employees, Rachel (Mila Kunis), shows glimmers of interest in him.

It’s not that certain gags in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” aren’t funny: There’s an early montage in which Peter has casual and somewhat unsatisfactory sex with numerous partners, including one who beams up at him as he’s grinding away, repeatedly murmuring, “Hi!” like a glazed automaton. Or the way, explaining the tedium and uselessness of his TV-show work to a starry-eyed civilian, Peter cries out in frustration, “There’s no melody; it’s just tones! Dark, ominous tones!” The wonderful Jack McBrayer, of “30 Rock,” has a small role as a Christian newlywed who’s having trouble gaining entrée into the world of wedded bliss: His wild-eyed innocence is both touching and faintly crazy. And almost everything Brand does is casually funny, not because he necessarily has the best lines but because he tosses off the ones he does have as if they were Sobranie butts. Plus his character is the kind of guy who wears flip-flops with leather pants. And how can you not laugh at that?

You Might Also Like

But scene after scene, there’s always something a little off about “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” Even in the midst of the movie’s attempts at sharp-edged humor, Segel and Stoller do try for a degree of sweetness, or at least even-handedness; they clearly want us to feel sympathy even for characters who have behaved badly. Still, those moments feel like afterthoughts: Toward the end of the movie, Bell’s Sarah is given a few chances to show she’s essentially a decent human being, but mostly the character comes off as shrill, brittle and spoiled, and there isn’t much Bell can do to give her more dimension.

And sometimes even just careless camerawork is enough to destroy a great gag: Early in the picture, when Sarah shows up at Peter’s house to break up with him, he greets her wrapped only in a towel. When she drops the news, the towel drops too, and Peter stands before her not just naked, but exposed. Instead of lingering on Peter’s body, letting his face and his mournful-looking cock tell the story of what he’s feeling, the camera moves away from him, and back again, giving us plenty of chances to cotton to the bittersweet nature of the gag. How many chances do we need? I think the movies need more full-frontal male nudity — it was featured offhandedly, and hilariously, in another Apatow production, “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” — but it needs to be used intelligently, not just thrown away. In “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” it’s a great idea that misfires.

Apatow has been a producer (and a writer) longer than he’s been directing, and the pictures he’s produced since his two big directing successes — “Superbad,” “Walk Hard,” “Drillbit Taylor” — have ranged from charming to mildly entertaining to dreadful. He can’t be held responsible for all their flaws; at the same time, his name alone is no seal of quality. “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” has some of the Apatow earmarks — chiefly, a leading man who looks like a regular guy. Segel is appealing enough at first, but before long his character’s ceaseless self-absorption is just wearying. We need to be able to laugh through his pain, not feel deadened by it, and Segel doesn’t have enough natural charm, or perhaps enough stamina, to carry us through.

The character and the way he’s played are representative of the problems swirling around in the universe Apatow has created. Characters like Peter may tap the Zeitgeist: There are lots of regular guys out there who deserve to find a nice (and, if possible, incredibly beautiful) woman that they can really connect with. But the fact that a guy is “regular” doesn’t necessarily make him great. “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” follows the Apatow formula faithfully enough. All that’s missing is charisma — the je ne sais quois that makes us fall in love in the first place.

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 13
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    DAYA  
    Young Daya has yet to become entirely jaded, but she has the character's trademark skeptical pout down pat. And with a piece-of-work mother like Aleida -- who oscillates between jealousy and scorn for her creatively gifted daughter, chucking out the artwork she brings home from summer camp -- who can blame her?

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    MORELLO   
    With her marriage to prison penpal Vince Muccio, Lorna finally got to wear the white veil she has fantasized about since childhood (even if it was made of toilet paper).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CINDY   
    Cindy's embrace of Judaism makes sense when we see her childhood, lived under the fist of a terrifying father who preached a fire-and-brimstone version of Christianity. As she put it: "I was raised in a church where I was told to believe and pray. And if I was bad, I’d go to hell."

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CAPUTO   
    Joey Caputo has always tried to be a good guy, whether it's offering to fight a disabled wrestler at a high school wrestling event or giving up his musical ambitions to raise another man's child. But trying to be a nice guy never exactly worked out for him -- which might explain why he decides to take the selfish route in the Season 3 finale.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    BOO   
    In one of the season's more moving flashbacks, we see a young Boo -- who rejected the traditional trappings of femininity from a young age -- clashing with her mother over what to wear. Later, she makes the decision not to visit her mother on her deathbed if it means pretending to be something she's not. As she puts it, "I refuse to be invisible, Daddy. Not for you, not for Mom, not for anybody.”

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    SOSO
    We still don't know what landed Brooke Soso in the slammer, but a late-season flashback suggests that some seriously overbearing parenting may have been the impetus for her downward spiral.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    POUSSEY
    We already know a little about Poussey's relationship with her military father, but this season we saw a softer side of the spunky fan-favorite, who still pines for the loving mom that she lost too young.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    PENNSATUCKY
    Pennsatucky had something of a redemption arc this season, and glimpses of her childhood only serve to increase viewer sympathy for the character, whose mother forced her to chug Mountain Dew outside the Social Security Administration office and stripped her of her sexual agency before she was even old enough to comprehend it.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CHANG
    This season, we got an intense look at the teenage life of one of Litchfield's most isolated and underexplored inmates. Rebuffed and scorned by her suitor at an arranged marriage, the young Chinese immigrant stored up a grudge, and ultimately exacted a merciless revenge.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    HEALY
    It's difficult to sympathize with the racist, misogynist CO Sam Healy, but the snippets we get of his childhood -- raised by a mentally ill mother, vomited on by a homeless man he mistakes for Jesus when he runs to the church for help -- certainly help us understand him better.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    NORMA
    This season, we learned a lot about one of Litchfield's biggest enigmas, as we saw the roots of Norma's silence (a childhood stutter) and the reason for her incarceration (killing the oppressive cult leader she followed for decades).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    NICKI
    While Nicki's mother certainly isn't entirely to blame for her daughter's struggles with addiction, an early childhood flashback -- of an adorable young Nicki being rebuffed on Mother's Day -- certainly helps us understand the roots of Nicki's scarred psyche.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>