TV show composer Peter Bretter (Jason Segel) has been in a five-year relationship with actress Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell), the star of the CSI-like show Crime Scene: The Scene of the Crime. But suddenly Peter is faced with the moment every devoted boyfriend is afraid of facing: when the woman says she “wants to talk”. As feared the moment she uttered those three words, Peter finds himself dumped for another man.
Unable to deal with his grief through one-night stands, Peter takes a vacation to Hawaii; however, his trip is ruined upon arrival when he realizes Sarah and her new boyfriend, rock star Aldous Snow (Russell Brand) are also staying at the same resort he’s booked at. But through the torment of this unexpected and unpleasant surprise, Peter finds relief in Rachel Jansen (Mila Kunis), a resort employee who at first takes pity on him over his ordeal, but soon strikes up a relationship with him.
It’s easy to relate to Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Each and every one of us has been dumped at some point in our lives. Don’t worry, little ones. You’ll get yours in time too. Think of it as a right of passage, just one that’ll make you feel miserable at first. As any Puddle of Mudd song will tell you, breakups suck, but given that comedy is in fact tragedy plus time, they provide solid backdrops for the genre. On paper, the backdrop to Forgetting Sarah Marshall borders dangerously on being a cheap sitcom gimmick. Man gets dumped, takes a vacation to clear his mind and get away from his troubles only to run into his troubles, that being his old flame.
Well, what a big coincidence!
Yet despite, the film’s sitcom-y premise, it delivers laugh after laugh as it promises. As is the case with most, if not all, films out of the Judd Apatow Factory, the studio plays up the raunch factor in the movie’s trailers, but Forgetting Sarah Marshall is a much sharper and intelligent film than it initially appears to be. The heavily advertised sophomoric humor is present, but it hardly dominates the film, and gross-out gags are almost a non-factor.
Unless you wanna count Jason Segel’s “ballsy” intro, hence why I said almost and not entirely.
Though another heavily advertised aspect of the film is the aforementioned Judd Apatow name (an understandable move considering his critical and financial hits The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up), Apatow only serves as producer here. The reason why this film works so well is director Nicholas Stoller, this being his directorial debut, and writer/star Jason Segel. Segel, who hails from the School of Apatow with prior roles in Freaks and Geeks, Undeclared and Knocked Up, serves up a healthy dose of wit and snappy dialogue in his screenplay, and it’s clear that he knows a thing or two about rom-com road-maps while providing fresh spins on a few expected formula routes.
It might seem hasty to say as a writer Segel’s on equal ground with Apatow. Forgetting Sarah Marshall is only one screenplay as compared to Apatow’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Funny People (his most recent hit Trainwreck was written by Amy Schumer), and co-writing the dreadful Sex Tape doesn’t help (to be fair, even a brilliant writer like Woody Allen’s had a few bad days at the office). Still, Segel’s writing debut is one that’s hilariously good, and though he hasn’t had as many hits as his mentor, this film is just as strong a comedy as Apatow’s best.
Along with his writing, Segel also excels in front of the camera in his first lead role, playing a brokenhearted mope but not to an obnoxious extent that he no longer becomes relatable to the viewer. Although Segel’s appeared in films and TV shows prior to this film, his performance here was the first to prove that he could be more than capable of carrying a comedy. There’s a down-to-earth everyman presence to him that makes his character believable and he also has no problems whatsoever being a little self-deprecating – well, more than a little and his first ten minutes of screen-time will show you just how unafraid he really is.
One often risks the sin of self-aggrandizement when writing themselves as the film’s lead, but Segel thankfully avoids committing such a pratfall. The self-deprecation helps, but more importantly, he surrounds himself with enough developed supporting characters (Jack McBrayer’s cartoonishly awkward newlywed is a mild one-note misstep), a few of which are Apatow regulars, that he generously allows a moment or two to have the spotlight.
It would’ve been easy to portray the titular Sarah Marshall as a two-timing bitch, but Kristen Bell gives her a little bit of humanity, which in turn goes a long way in keeping us from hating her, even if we’re obviously not rooting for her. Mila Kunis, a nice casting choice opposite Segel, brings an infectiously lively personality to Rachel Jansen. And it says the most of Segel’s writing and Stoller’s directing abilities that they can take Russell Brand, someone whose stand-up I don’t find funny in the slightest, and actually make him funny here. Much like Bell’s character, Brand could’ve played Aldous Snow like a pompous ass-hat, but instead manages to make him somewhat likeable in the way he seems to genuinely befriend Peter. Aldous still shows a shallow side, but he’s not a character we hate by any means.
Of course, all these characters are far from perfect, but Segel still shows a respect for them enough to keep them from being irredeemable assholes.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall ends exactly how you think it’s gonna end, and if you think me telling you Jason Segel winds up getting the good girl is a spoiler then you haven’t seen a single rom-com in the past 100 years of cinema. Despite the predictable outcome, Nicholas Stoller’s smooth pacing, Jason Segel’s great screenplay, which is matched by his immensely empathetic lead performance, and a stacked supporting cast make it a hilarious journey worth taking. Breakups may be a downer, but Forgetting Sarah Marshall turns it into something consistently funny and surprisingly sweet.