Judd Apatow movies may be redundant at times, and the female characters can be a little shrieky and flat, but fuck it: His flicks are funny. That's why critics are checking out the latest "Apatow-esque" film, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, to see if his brand of humor is still fresh. (Apatow produced the film, but did not write or direct). The movie follows Peter (Jason Segal), an endearing slacker, who gets dumped by his starlet girlfriend, Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell), after she meets a Lothario rock star (Russel Brand). Peter mopes around for a bit before going off to Hawaii to cheer himself up: Only to find he's staying at the same hotel as Sarah and her new boyfriend. Peter meets a new girl, Rachel (Mila Kunis), and awkward post-break up hijinks ensue! But is the film funny? The reviews are mixed. After the jump, read the critics have to say and see if you're still charmed (if you ever were) by Apatow's "endearing dude"-centered films.
The roles of Sarah and Rachel might have been one-dimensional and shrill, but neither Segel's script nor Kunis and Bell's performances allow that to happen. Forgetting Sarah Marshall delights in its frequent raunchy moments — to get any more full-frontal Segel you'd have to move in with him — but it functions on a mellower, more rueful level.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall continues the post-Wedding Crashers trend of pushing comedies to the limits of the R rating, with lots of explicit dialogue and a few exposed boobs to go with that dangling member. But it avoids the gross-out one-upmanship of filth for filth's sake. The nude breakup scene that begins the movie is funny but also painfully intimate, like the moment in Robert Altman's Short Cuts when Julianne Moore confesses to a long-ago adulterous affair while naked from the waist down. A late scene in which Sarah and Peter have a miserably failed go at relapse sex is a good example of raunchiness that serves a narrative purpose. Other scenes, like the extended "pearl necklace" gag that's been so heavily peddled in trailers, are just dirty for the laugh-getting hell of it, and that's OK too.
But scene after scene, there's always something a little off about Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Even in the midst of the movie's attempts at sharp-edged humor, Segel and Stoller do try for a degree of sweetness, or at least even-handedness; they clearly want us to feel sympathy even for characters who have behaved badly. Still, those moments feel like afterthoughts: Toward the end of the movie, Bell's Sarah is given a few chances to show she's essentially a decent human being, but mostly the character comes off as shrill, brittle and spoiled, and there isn't much Bell can do to give her more dimension.
Bell, whose comic timing was evident in TV's Veronica Mars, doesn't fare quite as well here. It's really the guys' movie, unlike Knocked Up, where Katherine Heigl and Leslie Mann were often as funny as their male counterparts. Mila Kunis plays Rachel, Peter's new love interest, and she comes across as pleasant but not particularly humorous. Both she and Sarah are stock Hollywood girlfriend figures — one is laid-back and the other high-maintenance — but neither is a fully formed character.
But the schlub-hottie pairings that have become ubiquitous on screen lately also reinforce a dreary double standard. Guys are permitted to be flabby, lazy emotional wrecks, but as long as they crack jokes, some action will come their way. Girls, ideally, should have a sense of humor — mainly so they can laugh at those jokes — but for the most part they should look good in a bikini and like sex (though not too much and not anything too weird). Maybe someday, though probably not under Mr. Apatow's aegis, a relatively ordinary-looking woman will have a sex comedy of her own.
As embodiments go, the Segel physique, a long, pale, uncooked dinner roll of a shape, is an apt one for the attractions of this very funny, very chewy, partially undercooked comedy. Indeed, with even more ferocity of purpose and Andy Kaufman-school fearlessness than that roly-poly Seth Rogen in Knocked Up or noodly-oodly Christopher Mintz-Plasse in Superbad, Segel embraces the destiny of male anatomy in yet another clever creation from the Judd Apatow Alumni Association; this one, too, speaks from the male heart (and other parts) in a language accessible to females. Yet it does so with a fresh yeastiness I haven't already seen in other Apatovian products.
Apatow's specialty has always been malius dumbius, the male of the species, a gender focus that has drawn criticism for its portrayal of women as humor-impaired nags and drags. But though once again the female characters in Forgetting Sarah Marshall only amount to walking-talking prizes to be loved, chased or fought over, Bell and Kunis bring feisty, funny dimension to their roles. And there is one tense-dialogue scene between the two — when the subtext is territorial possession of Peter — that's one of the movie's most sensitively written moments.
It seems to me that the success of Apatow and company derives from the fact that though their premises offer a lot of vulgar promise, they rarely deliver on that potential full-bore. What they're really doing, most of the time, is offering twists and updates on the classic romantic comedy formulas, making them acceptable to today's much younger movie audiences. For example, Forgetting Sarah Marshall seems to be what the academics like to call a "Comedy of Remarriage." You know — fairly mature couple splits up, endures some feckless romantic misadventures, then get more happily reconnected in the final reel. You expect that to happen with these kids. But it doesn't. Instead something that's equally civilized, but a little less formulaic develops, something that is obviously appealing to the optimism and inexperience of a young audience occurs. This is a fairly low-keyed comedy, but a grown-up dropping in on it can appreciate its lack of frenzy, its fundamental good nature, as easily as its core audience will. It isn't exactly a gem, but as zircons go, it'll do.