The Judd Apatow machine cranks out another one with Forgetting Sarah Marshall. This round, Apatow—in his producer capacity—hands over the reins of both writer and star to an alumnus of his old Freaks and Geeks TV series, Jason Segel, and gives the directing chores to first-timer Nicholas Stoller, who wrote the unfortunate Fun With Dick and Jane (2005) remake. At this rate, we will eventually see a movie made by Apatow’s pool boy. The whole process is alarmingly like that of the Adam Sandler machine, with its proliferation of lousy Rob Schneider, David Spade etc. projects. (And now we have a 2009 Apatow-Sandler project to look forward to.) The operative difference is that Apatow’s buddies sometimes evidence at least a modicum of talent—and the resulting films tend to be a good bit less mean-spirited in the bargain.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall is solidly in the Apatovian mold, meaning essentially a mix of raunchy frat-boy humor, sentimentality and a kind of arrested-development fixation on men as overgrown boys. The actual artistic merits of the formula are very much a subjective call. Personally, I loathed The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005), found Knocked Up (2007) amusing once and unwatchably obnoxious on a second viewing, liked Superbad (2007) more for its serious than comedic aspects, avoided Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007) as if it were a rabid dog, and thought Drillbit Taylor (2008) utterly inconsequential.
Match that against your own feelings when considering my take on Sarah Marshall, which I was surprised to find I generally liked in a very small way. This isn’t saying I think it’s especially good. In fact, as filmmaking it’s pretty bad. I don’t know when I’ve seen such a badly edited movie in terms of shots just simply not cutting together. But it’s a reasonably genial, shambling little film, which is pretty much the same description I’d use for its writer-star Jason Segel.
Segel is the latest—and possibly most agreeable—of Apatow’s man-boys. He has a gentle, fragile quality that perfectly suits the character he’s created for himself. His Peter Bretter almost qualifies as an overachiever slacker, in that he actually has a job that’s more or less related to his interests as a composer. That what he composes are mood-music doodles and shock-effect stings for the cheesy TV show starring his girlfriend, Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell, TV’s Veronica Mars), is another matter.
The plot is actually two-pronged. Yes, it’s about his painful breakup with Sarah Marshall, but it’s also about him reclaiming his actual creative aspirations. Since the movie functions on Apatow basic, however, this second aspect can only occur through the intercession of a woman, hotel receptionist Rachel Jansen (Mila Kunis, TV’s That ‘70s Show), since Apatow men tend to be incapable of any degree of self-awareness.
The bulk of the comedy stems from the central premise of brokenhearted Peter inadvertently ending up at the same Hawaiian resort as Sarah and her new boyfriend, an amusingly self-involved rock star, Aldous Snow (Russell Brand, Penelope). Sure, it’s a contrivance, but it largely works. Certainly it works better than the script’s notion that there’s something weird about Peter not being over the unexpected end of a five-year long relationship in a matter of three weeks. Some of the humor is coarse and stupid; some of it is coarse and funny. The overall tone, however, is sweetly funny in a way that actually marks a departure from the formula. There’s a much greater sense of the reality of the characters and the reasons behind their actions here. The film’s big musical-number ending clearly attempts to ape the one from The 40-Year-Old Virgin, but it’s actually integral to the plot and works better.
A big fuss has been made over Segel’s full-frontal nude scene—to the degree that you’d think no one ever saw a penis on the screen before. In fact, the Los Angeles Times called the nudity “unprecedented,” which is a demonstrably nonsensical claim. The sight of Segel stripped bare is apparently drawing big laughs. The reason must be sociological, because the scene isn’t funny (the nudity is used to stress his vulnerability). And, while it’s perhaps not something to write home about, there’s nothing remotely embarrassing about Mr. Segel’s endowment. On the other hand, there may be something embarrassing about the audience-maturity level evidenced here. Rated R for sexual content, language and some graphic nudity.