Monday, May 12, 2008

Review - Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Forgetting Sarah Marshall bears all the hallmarks of a Judd Apatow film, but a Judd Apatow film it is not. Like Apatow's two hits The 40 Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, this picture follows the journey of an adult male stuck fast in an unfulfilling situation, who is faced with a crisis and who must tackle it head-on in order to mature and develop. Peter Bretter (Jason Segel, who also wrote the movie) is a slacker musician who has settled into a two-year relationship with Sarah (Kristen Bell), an actress on the CSI-style show that Peter provides music for. At the start of the film, Peter is set to welcome Sarah back from her location shoot, and he meets her fresh out of the shower, gleefully dropping his towel in anticipation of some fun, but she has other ideas. Sarah has chosen this moment to end their relationship, and she has fallen for decadent British rock star Aldous Snow (the irritatingly ubiquitous Russell Brand, basically playing himself).

Devastated, the jilted Peter allows himself to sink into a deep depression before his brother (Bill Hader) suggests a holiday, with Peter finally settling on Hawaii as a place to start afresh. Things start to look up when Peter encounters the gorgeous hotel receptionist Rachel (Mila Kunis), but it seems this resort is a surprisingly small place, and everywhere he turns Peter finds himself bumping into Sarah and Aldous, who have chosen the same spot for a romantic getaway. For all of its raunchy gags and full-frontal nudity, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is the most conventional effort yet from the Apatow stable, and one of the most inconsistent. The gags are OK, but the execution of them is often slapdash, like Peter's naked breakup scene, for example; a difficult sequence that never really finds the right note, or perhaps the amount of pre-publicity this scene has received spoiled it for me ("Segel's penis is exposed for 73 frames!" the hysterical reports announced. Honestly, can't we all just grow up?).
Forgetting Sarah Marshall has been directed by Nicholas Stoller, a first-timer who lets the film droop in too many places, with many scenes feeling like they could do with some sharper editing to heighten the laughs. Presumably, this picture was shot in the usual Apatow manner, with the screenplay augmented by plenty of improvisational touches from its familiar cast members, but Stoller is less astute in his attempts to craft these elements into a slick, cohesive whole, and even though the picture is shorter than both The 40 Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, it feels longer. There are some really funny moments on display, though, with the nicest touches being clever spins on familiar scenes; like the CSI spoofs starring William Baldwin, or Rachel persuading Peter to sing his Dracula song in a local bar. As ever, the supporting cast is great value, and credit is due here to Jack McBrayer (a newlywed terrified of consummating his marriage) and Jonah Hill (an over-attentive waiter); but Paul Rudd's permanently spaced-out surfer ("When life gives you lemons, just fuck the lemons and go surfing") was the highlight for me, stealing pretty much every scene with a perfectly pitched turn.

Unfortunately, it's not hard to steal a scene from Segel, an able supporting player in previous Apatow productions who flounders a little in the major role here. He's an uninteresting actor who spends too much of the film with the same hurt, lip-quivering look on his face, and he could do with a little of Seth Rogen's comic spark to liven things up. Peter's essential dilemma – trying to build a new relationship with Rachel while still pining for his ex – doesn't ring true either, because the filmmakers have stacked the deck so heavily against Sarah they make the choice a seemingly straightforward one; she's depicted as uptight, shallow and neurotic, while Rachel (beautiful, lovely, funny, lovely, exciting and... just lovely) is a dream. When Segel contrives a late threat to their budding romance – following the standard rom-com formula – it's hard to feel a great deal of sympathy for the guy.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall proceeds to wear out its welcome from this point on. The climactic scenes are criminally lazy, with the big puppet set-piece being rather tedious and overdone in comparison to the simple amusement offered by Peter's song earlier on. It's not exactly a bad film per se, it has enough sporadic bursts of laughter to hold our interest, but it's a sloppily assembled, overlong and unfocused piece of work. Maybe this is a consequence of elevating a solid, second-string actor to a role beyond his capabilities, or maybe it's the result of placing the project in the hands of an untried director (Walk Hard, overseen by Jake Kasdan, showed no such dip in quality). Whatever the reasons for Forgetting Sarah Marshall's failure, it's a rare misfire from the Apatow factory, and with so many forthcoming productions bearing his name, one hopes the bar will be set a little higher than that reached by this eminently forgettable picture.