FILM REVIEW: Forgetting Sarah Marshall 

Broken Premise: Forgetting Sarah Marshall can't find a shape to contain its gags

Forgetting Sarah Marshall
Starring Jason Segel, Kristen Bell, Mila Kunis
Directed by Nicholas Stoller
Rated R

For a few minutes there, I actually thought Forgetting Sarah Marshall was going to force me to abandon one of my most hallowed critical rules: You have to grant a movie its premise.

It makes no sense, the reasoning goes, to grumble that no one would ever run around a disintegrating Manhattan like the 20-something protagonist of Cloverfield and keep his camera running. Assume that he would and focus instead on what the movie does with the idea.

Yet I couldn't shake the preposterousness of this comedy's central idea: A guy flies from Los Angeles to Hawaii to shake off a bad breakup, and there, by pure happenstance, is his ex-girlfriend and her new squeeze.

On the same island. At the same hotel.

Then I came to my senses.

It's not that the idea started to seem more plausible; it's still an insane level of coincidence on which to build a movie. No, I simply came to understand this as the next (il)logical step in the comedy franchise built by Judd Apatow.

Where many movie comedies clock in at around 90 minutes, those from Apatow and his pals — including the Apatow-produced Superbad — stretch out over a couple of hours of gag-filled dialogue. Even in his funniest films, like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Apatow has shown himself to be less interested in storytelling than in creating situations in which his actors can do funny — often extremely funny — things.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall, directed by Apatow's one-time Undeclared collaborator Nicholas Stoller and written by his Freaks & Geeks co-star Jason Segel, simply goes the extra mile. It's a sketch-comedy movie in which the standard plot-development questions — Will the guy get the girl? Will someone change for the better? — prove almost laughably irrelevant.

The "laughably" part is where Forgetting Sarah Marshall finds its saving grace, as Segel stars as his own protagonist, Peter Bretter. The house composer for a CSI-type TV show's ominous underscore, Peter has also been dating the show's star, Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell) for five years. But Sarah dumps him for British pop star Aldous Snow (Russell Brand), inspiring a heartbroken Peter to flee the mainland — and, of course, immediately discover Sarah and Aldous enjoying the tropical splendor together.

Along for the ride are a number of Apatow regulars, including Paul Rudd (as an attention-span-deficient surf guru) and Jonah Hill (as a resort employee with a massive man-crush on Aldous), and they all get opportunities for hilarious riffs. Even better is Jack McBrayer, playing a sexually inexperienced newlywed with a priceless clench-jawed frustration at not having a clue what to do on his honeymoon. Laugh-out-loud moments are precious at the movies, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall isn't stingy with them.

It is not nearly so generous, unfortunately, with a sense of how to put together a story. Peter eventually hooks up with Rachel, the resort's front-desk clerk, played by Mila Kunis as the kind of sexy-yet-impossibly-cool woman strewn throughout the Apatow universe.

But there's rarely a sense that anyone cares all that much about the mechanics that will pair Boy A with Girl B. Segel's slightly doughy Everyman-child appeal — he's Seth Rogen, only with more tension in his jaw — makes him easy enough to root for, except that the movie can't decide whether Sarah's annoyance at his sweatpants-wearing, massive-bowl-of-cereal-noshing lack of ambition is justifiable or merely bitchy and shallow.

An end to the story will come, but it's clear it won't be from any natural character progression. It'll be whenever Segel runs out of jokes.

For any given viewer, the sense of how many of those jokes are worth the meandering plot will vary. A lot of the time, Segel and Stoller go for big, obviously outrageous moments, assuming that a few shots of a naked penis are funnier than the idea that a guy is getting dumped while standing exposed in front of the woman he loves, or that if one shot of a guy practicing his sexual technique in public is funny, five shots must be five times funnier.

As much clever stuff as there is here, it's just stuff — formless, shapeless, undisciplined. Some of Forgetting Sarah Marshall may be hard to believe, but the hardest thing to believe may be that it actually employed an editor.

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