Movie Review: Forgetting Sarah Marshall
By Matthew Huntley
May 29, 2008
Judging by the previews, you probably expect Forgetting Sarah Marshall to be pretty funny, which it is, but perhaps not this funny. It makes us smile and feel good, sure, but it also makes us laugh really hard. What you also don't expect is for it to tell a rich, involving story, but it does. This is because the filmmakers never assume its characters are simple and can easily be labeled "good" or "bad," "right" or "wrong." For a film about relationships and dating, these people are justifiably complicated and unpredictable, which rolls the comedy into human nature.
Don't let my opening paragraph make you think it's all serious, though. There are plenty of vulgar sex jokes to satiate even the most perverse moviegoer. More important is how strongly and effortlessly the intelligent screenplay lets us get to know the characters on a deeper, human level. This is rare for a genre mostly known for its stale archetypes.
At the beginning, Peter Bretter (Jason Segel) is sitting at home watching TV and eating a giant bowl of Fruit Loops. He gets a call from his actress-girlfriend, Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell), who tells him she'll be over soon. When Peter walks out of the bathroom wearing only a towel, Sarah gives him the news: after five years of dating, she's breaking up with him. Suddenly, the towel drops and Peter's manhood, literally and figuratively, is left hanging in the balance.
Even though Peter is the film's hero, it's interesting how Sarah is given understandable reasons for breaking up with him. We're not solely inclined to side with Peter. Most of the time, we can see, he's a lazy couch potato with no appetite for adventure or the outdoors. When Sarah tells him she tried to make their relationship work by reading books, taking seminars, talking to her mother, etc., we believe her, even though that still doesn't justify her cheating on him with another guy.
It's not that Peter doesn't work. He's a musician who writes all the bass, ominous tones for Sarah's television show, Crime Scene, a not-so-exaggerated detective series obviously meant to send up CSI. Her co-star is Billy Baldwin, whose one-liners and David Caruso impression single-handedly generate the film's biggest laughs.
To take his mind off Sarah, Peter decides to sleep around with several different women, but they just don't cut it. One can't stop saying hi to Peter in bed while another climaxes without making the slightest noise. These women aren't exactly confidence builders.
On the advice of his step-brother Brian (Bill Hader), Peter heads to Hawaii for a little R&R but unexpectedly finds Sarah there with her new beau, a cockney rock 'n roll stud named Aldous Snow (Russell Brand). Now, based on romantic comedy conventions, we expect Aldous to be just another obligatory jerk who becomes Peter's nemesis. Aldous isn't remotely written like that. He's actually likable and amusing and the screenplay lets Peter and him share a common ground because of their mutual problems with Sarah.
There are, of course, inevitable plot developments since this is a movie about a guy on the rebound, one of which involves Peter meeting a new girl named Rachel (Mila Kunis of TV's That '70s Show). But the course with which these events play out and who finally ends up with whom aren't always certain. For once in a romantic comedy, we wonder what's going to happen and who will end up with whom. Will Peter end up with Rachel? With Sarah? By himself? Keeping the possibilities open makes the movie more fun and engaging.
One character the movie could have abandoned was Matthew the waiter, played by Jonah Hill (Superbad). Matthew has a man crush on Aldous but his scenes are more awkward than funny. They bring the energy down a bit, even though Aldous does have an uproarious payoff when Matthew asks him about his demo CD.
First and foremost, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is a comedy, and an exceptional one at that. I laughed a lot, and not just because I enjoyed the company and wit of the characters, but because the movie's situations and ideas are just plain hysterical - Peter's paranoia that Sarah has mind-blowing orgasms with Aldous; Peter being called out to perform a song from his Dracula rock opera; Aldous teaching a newly-married Christian (Jack McBrayer) how to have sex; Peter singing to himself about not wanting to see a psychiatrist. Some of these scenes seem completely random, but in hindsight, they're impeccably timed within the story.
The film probably moves as well as it does because Segel also wrote the screenplay. He's obviously in sync with his main character and he and director Nicholas Stoller show a deep understanding of the human side of the material. We even end up caring about Sarah. By not making her out to be just the bitchy ex-girlfriend, the film goes places we don't expect it to. I wanted the movie to go on forever when Peter said to Sarah, "Just have a real conversation with me." That's not the kind of dialogue we expect from a raunchy comedy. The same goes for the line, "Maybe it's good we got hurt. Now we're more impervious to pain."
I knew going in this was another movie produced by Judd Apatow. The man has yet to be associated to a bad movie, even though you can see a redundant pattern in his work, which causes some of his movies to blend together. That's not the case with Forgetting Sarah Marshall, thanks to its writer and director. They make it stand out not only as one of Apatow's best but also as one of the best romantic comedies in a long time.