Forgetting Sarah Marshall: Fairly Memorable

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Glen Wilson

Burning her photo? So not going to get you over her. Showing your penis to all of America? Just maybe.

Twice in the course of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, its amusingly woebegone protagonist, Peter Bretter (Jason Segel, who also wrote the screenplay) appears stark naked, his frontalia fully, if briefly, on view. The Judd Apatow comedy conglomerate, which is responsible for every aspect of the picture, has caused some buzz by striking brave poses about the near-Constitutional right of actors to display the family jewels when the spirit moves them.

Don’t know about that. I am not certain that the sight of Segal’s thingy adds greatly to the gaiety of nations. And it’s possible that this hoo-ha will distract us from the fact that this is not a bad little comedy. People tend to focus on the raunchy premises of Apatow’s work (he produced the film, and Segel, director Nicholas Stoller and some of the actors are veteran collaborators), while ignoring the qualities that made movies like The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Superbad such mighty hits, which is a certain wistfulness and romantic rue.

That’s the case with Sarah, in which Peter finds himself devastated by the departure of his longtime girlfriend, (Kristen Bell) for another man. He (and we) will soon discover that her best acting is the real-life kind, wherein she fairly convincing portrays a nice and sympathetic young woman when, in fact, she’s hiding an icily ambitious nature under that mask. Before that happens, we have the pleasure of watching Peter crack up — can’t work (he’s a television composer), can’t sleep, can’t eat, can’t tidy up his apartment. Off he goes to a resort in Hawaii, doing his best to forget his troubles. Naturally, Sarah is shacked up there with Peter’s replacement, a hirsute, laid-back and slyly egomaniacal rock star named Aldous, who is played with an oddly insinuating charm by British comic Russell Brand. Peter attempts to learn surfing, drinks to excess and spies clumsily on the lovers. He has quite a lot on his plate — so much so that he for a long time ignores a very tempting side dish, a hotel receptionist named Rachel (the lovely Mila Kunis), who has dropped out of mainland striving.

Segel has written himself a good part as the amiable, emotionally underdeveloped and not exactly buff Peter, and as an actor he finds the right line for this doofus to tread. He edges up to the farcical, but then backs off to more plausible sorts of confusion. He allows you feel for the guy. Most of us, at one time or another, have been jilted and tried to struggle back from despair and that grounds this comedy in a certain reality, which is not allowed to become oppressive.

It seems to me that the success of Apatow and company derives from the fact that though their premises offer a lot of vulgar promise, they rarely deliver on that potential full-bore. What they’re really doing, most of the time, is offering twists and updates on the classic romantic comedy formulas, making them acceptable to today’s much younger movie audiences. For example, Forgetting Sarah Marshall seems to be what the academics like to call a “Comedy of Remarriage.” You know — fairly mature couple splits up, endures some feckless romantic misadventures, then get more happily reconnected in the final reel. You expect that to happen with these kids. But it doesn’t. Instead something that’s equally civilized, but a little less formulaic develops, something that is obviously appealing to the optimism and inexperience of a young audience occurs. This is a fairly low-keyed comedy, but a grown-up dropping in on it can appreciate its lack of frenzy, its fundamental good nature, as easily as its core audience will. It isn’t exactly a gem, but as zircons go, it’ll do.