Frothy and fruity (and raunchy and loopy), Forgetting Sarah Marshall is a sweet vacation chill drink that goes down easy. It would take a few of these to really give you a knockout movie high, but the buzz is nice -- it's a cheery way to forget your cares for a couple of hours, and America's clearly in the mood.
These Judd Apatow productions are getting to be a dependable trademark, for better and for worse. The down side? After the seminal 40 Year-Old Virgin and 2007's Year of Apatow (Knocked Up, Superbad), there is a franchise now, which means some of the thrill is gone. We have seen many an Apatow boy-man do his thing, and such Macho-Chick Flicks (David Denby says "Slacker Striver," Creative Screenwriting calls them raunch-coms) are beginning to feel predictable.
True to its genre, Sarah has no cinematic vision to speak of (every Apatow movie looks like widescreen TV). It features a guy doing the girl's part (the big joke for the movie's first half is that leading man Jason Segel enacts every rom-com heroine's heartbreak, short of devouring some Hagen Daz from the container). And the girls are more plot device than fully-developed, credible females (this time Kristen Bell gets to play the malleable blonde).
On the plus side, with an Apatow product you know you'll be getting a fairly consistent stream of good or decent jokes, both verbal and physical, with occasional sustained set pieces and running gags. And these are not your mother's romantic comedies. Not just because a typical throway line is cleverly dirty (I liked the bride-fatigued honeymooning groom who left a scene muttering, "I'm off to find the mythical clitoris").
No, what keeps these rom-coms fresh is that they're meta. Sarah never spends too much time hitting an obvious beat; it tosses off obligatory exposition and credibility markers with a "we've all seen this scene, so let's cut to the chase" panache. Segel's writing here is easygoing yet alert, with occasional quirky zingers; the script even includes a droll parody of TV's sexy homicide genre (apparently some affectionate revenge; Segel did a stint on CSI).
In Apatow country, you can also expect to be revisiting ever-hardy members of the Apatow Players stock company -- in this case, male MVP Paul Rudd (of Knocked Up, et al) and Superbad's Jonas Hill. Star and scribe Segel is of course a charter member of this crew, dating back to Apatow's Freaks and Geeks days. He acquits himself reasonably enough, though his is a less endearing shlub than the one played by Rogen in Knocked Up and, let's face it, more small than big screen in charisma wattage.
The genuine big movie star thrill of Sarah Marshall comes with the debut of new talent Russell Brand, instantly beloved by the camera, who nearly walks away with the movie as the benignly assholic British rock star Aldous Snow. Snow's smartly written and Brand has a field day with the role; I know I'll be re-viewing this on DVD just to re-enjoy his delicious self-absorption.
Good girl Mila Kunis's appeal is actually a key aspect of the Apatow Aesthetic. She's beautiful, but not movie star otherwoldly/unapproachable gorgeous -- you'd believe that such a creature really might be found behind the reception desk of a world-class resort hotel. In this, she embodies what's sneakily most compelling about Apatow's sensibility. The guy and his colleagues are making movies about them that could be us.
The witty dialogue in an Apatow company pic is irreverent in a welcome way. It has that certain snarky, casually cruel sound we make when we're making fun of our friends, or in pain and being unintentionally funny at our own expense. After years of enduring too-stylized theatrical rom-com conversation, we're starved for the sound of us, talking truth the way we talk it -- which is rude and often crudely scatalogical -- and this, I think, is part of the baseline appeal of Apatow's comedy.
The same holds true for the physical comedy. Director Nicholas Stoller has colluded with Segel in milking maximum embarrassment out of male nudity, where the tacit subtext is: yeah, guys really look like that. And most of the set piece humor in Sarah is grounded in humiliations that are all too familiar to many of us -- those moments when unlike say, old school heroes in movies, Segel does exactly the thing he shouldn't do, and suffers the ridiculous/mundane consequences.
Meanwhile, tropical drink Sarah, with its bright colors, scenic vistas, hula-dancers and surfing sequences, seems emblematic of USA entertainment here and now: this is getaway fare, pure and simple. It's not for nothing that in a time when the economy's tanking and a war drags on, we'd like to lose ourselves in sex farce giggles (the studio slates are so bloated with laugh-fests that one of this summer's opening weekend competitions is between blockbuster comedies Love Guru and Get Smart).
Aptly titled, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is largely about both denial and moving on. Indeed, what the picture's accompanying trailers (and the Sarah audience) told me was: Pineapple Express -- this summer's Apatow franchise stoner movie with Seth Rogen as an uber-pothead -- is going to be HUGE, as is, most probably, Tropic Thunder: the only war movie that could actually make money in America this year, because it's a parody of war movies and it looks and sounds capital-F Funny.
Escapism, dude, it's what we're all about. We're willing to laugh at ourselves, sure, but we want to be on vacation with like, one of those drinks that has a little umbrella in it. And given the state of the world and the mess we've all made of it, can you blame us?