Sunday, February 22, 2009
A poster on one of the forums I frequent once described Forgetting Sarah Marshall as the "Apatow-produced film most like Freaks and Geeks." That only adds to the laundry list of reasons why I desperately need to sit down and watch that show. Of all the major works of Apatow Productions (and the lesser ones too), I find myself returning to Forgetting Sarah Marshall the most often, as it offers not only a slew of laughs but the most honest romance to ever grace one of the production company's films.
Jason Segel (who wrote the film) stars as Peter Bretter, a television composer who creates not music so much as -- as he terms it sardonically -- "tones." Chiefly, he works on the hit show Crime Scene: Scene of the Crime, and he's dating the star of the show, Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell). Well, at least he was, as she visits him at the beginning of the film to break up, saying that she's met someone else. The break-up sends Peter into a tailspin of one-night stands to forget Sarah, but to no avail. Finally he strikes upon an idea: head to Hawaii for a week or so to get away from it all, only to find himself in the same hotel as Sarah and her new beau, rock star/professional Lothario Aldous Snow (Russell Brand).
From this comedy of errors comes a story about heartbreak, moving on, the awkwardness of relationships, and puppet musicals. Strap yourself in, it's a wonderful ride. As Peter copes with having to face his ex -- and with neither party willing to "run away" to another hotel -- he meets a group of tourists and locals who all get in big laughs and help propel the story. There's the zonked-out surfing instructor (Paul Rudd) who takes Peter out on the waves for the day and doesn't remember who he is by nightfall, the conservative newlyweds trying to consummate their marriage without offending the Lord, the kindly bartender who enthusiastically invites Peter to come snorkeling to watch the turtle mating season. All off-kilter little weirdos on an island just foreign enough to the average American (even though it's a damn state) to make them plausible.
While there, Peter meets Rachel (Mila Kunis), the receptionist, who pities Peter's state and even gives him a room free of charge because of it. The two socialize and even go out on pseudo-dates, and we begin to learn what both of them, and indeed all the characters, seek in this sunny paradise. Rachel, like Peter, came to Hawaii in order to forget a broken relationship, and remained there when it didn't work. Seeing how happy the move off the mainland made other staffers at the hotel only hurts more. Even Sarah, I think, visited Hawaii to squash any lingering guilt over dumping Peter, or at the very least to continue her fantasy getaway with the rock star.
What sets FSM apart from the other Apatow Productions is that it finally gives the women in a voice. Apatow placed Catherine Keener's character on a sort of detached pedestal, and made the women of Knocked Up flat and boring in order to set them apart as "mature." And we won't even get into how ridiculous it was when Jonah Hill somehow got with Emma Stone in Superbad (and that was after he passed out and accidentally smashed her in the head). But Segel lets each character have its own pathos, warmth, and killer humor. Yes, it's still two beautiful women essentially battling for that mountain of a man, but for once the women don't seem like afterthoughts tossed in amidst the improv.
But even without the pathos, this would still be the best film to come out of the ruins of Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared, as it by far the funniest. Superbad and Knocked Up, funny as they are, suffer from excruciating lulls in the middle when the characters head into situations obviously designed for a joke. Now, Chaplin did that and he's the greatest comic director of all time, but that was then and two-reelers aren't exactly the rage anymore. Forgetting Sarah Marshall, on the other hand, features dialogue that rarely plays into its location (save for discussing Hawaii), so the jokes flow smoothly and the story never sags. Not to mention that the lines are almost all screamingly funny and real, mixing awkward humor with Allen/Smith style monologues and even broad moments like the over-the-top brilliance of the Dracula musical (I wish they'd made a full version of this and put it on DVD).
When I revisit the films of Apatow and his ilk, I usually find myself spotting glaring flaws that can be overlooked on a first viewing but grate like missed notes in a recital when you're no longer in a room of people laughing over lines and generally ignoring everything else. The two exceptions I've found to this are Pineapple Express, which works because it doesn't try to be deep, and this film, which tries to be deep and succeeds. It has the power that a great romantic film must have, the ability to carry you along to unknown places you can't wait to visit, just as you do when you first meet someone special. Forgetting Sarah Marshall is simply one of the best comedies in a decade, and one of the most knowing.