Another one in the win column

Sometimes the things I appreciate most about a well-made film are the moments that didn’t occur. I love being able to recognize a point at which the writer didn’t pick the most obvious path or veer into a cliché when it would have been easy, and maybe even reasonably effective, to go that way. Instead, he or she came up with something more special, more original, more true to character or to life. Big and small, there are moments just like that all over Jason Segel’s lovely Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

Besides waiting around for them to get with it and use a female character as more than the prize for the dude in question, there isn’t much to complain about in the string of Judd Apatow-related, good-hearted, foul-mouthed sex comedies we’ve been so privileged to be supplied with regularly over the last few years. This latest, despite being the only one I recall featuring full-frontal male nudity (helloooo there, Mr. Segel), is the gentlest of the batch while still pushing the line of taste just far enough here and there to satisfy the audience’s expectations. But the title of this film is revealing of Segel’s approach to his turn in the ensemble’s spotlight; one might assume that if Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (Superbad) had contributed to this script, it would be called something more like Screw You, Sarah Marshall. Segel’s script is subtle in all the right places, and kinder to the title character than we might expect. The strategy works beautifully.

Segel’s Peter is a composer working on a ludicrous CSI-style show that stars his girlfriend, Sarah (Kristen Bell). Since the soundtrack of the show consists mostly of well-placed ominous tones, his brain is more concerned with a certain pet project that I won’t describe here, because I wouldn’t want anyone who hasn’t seen the movie yet to know what’s coming. When Sarah breaks up with Peter, he is devastated, and eventually heads to Hawaii for a recuperative vacation. At the same resort where, it turns out, Sarah and her new boyfriend are also staying.

The movie asks you to accept this one coincidence and not dwell on it, and as a reward, it avoids asking us to make any more such leaps as the plot progresses. This is what I mean when I say that the script avoids cliché: there is no moment when anyone just happens to walk in at the right time to catch someone else in a compromising position, no overheard misunderstanding that causes one character to make an assumption they shouldn’t be making. These are unfortunate standards of the romantic comedy genre, and those films that manage to avoid them are always stronger for it. The situations that bring Peter, his new love interest Rachel (Mila Kunis), Sarah and her Brit-rocker boyfriend Aldous Snow together arise from active decisions the characters make in response to the emotions they are feeling, rather than something more like, say, getting put on the same day-long cruise. The filmmakers are not taking any shortcuts here. Every awkward moment and every realization the characters come to is earned.

Jason Segel has been bringing joy to my life since his hopeless Nick Andopolis on Freaks and Geeks, and still delights me every week as the goofy Marshall Erickson on the terribly underappreciated sitcom How I Met Your Mother. Here we see that he can be more than an ensemble player. It is a credit to him how well these almost-but-not-quite-one-note comic characters play off of his everyman, from the surfing instructor with the fried brain to the honeymooner who hasn’t learned how to please his wife to the outrageous Aldous Snow (a character that also surprises—watch closely during the dinner scene when everyone else is getting drunk and he can’t because he is a recovering alcoholic. Actor Russell Brand marvelously shows the depth we hadn’t realized the character possessed).

I’m appreciating this movie more and more as I talk about it, and I find myself wanting to see it again. The Apatow crew is quickly building up a track record for quality hit after quality hit that only the Pixar camp can currently rival. Keep it coming boys, keep it coming. But think about making one for us girls sometime, too.


2 Responses to “Another one in the win column”

  1. 1 Becca April 23, 2008 at 2:53 pm

    Very well said…I agree with everything!

    I wonder if Mike Post has any interesting, fringe-theatre side projects?

  2. 2 Jacqui April 24, 2008 at 4:29 pm

    I heard an NPR story recently where they talked to people named Sarah Marshall to get their reaction to now having a name that would be synonomous with a movie/character. It was pretty choice. If I was more prepared I would post the link here, but I guess I can do a google search… Here it is, fantastic:

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Other projects:

Downton Gabby: podcasting about Downton Abbey from a funny, foul-mouthed, feminist perspective

Quick Lit: reading one short story a day in 2015

Grand Dames: collecting sundry achievements of admirable women

The MacGuffin: archive of my days as a film critic

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