Saturday, February 16, 2008

Forgetting Sarah Marshall

[NOTE: This film opens in April. I got a chance to check out an early screening this week. The final film may end up being different from the cut I watched.]

Forgetting Sarah Marshall is the latest in a constant stream of movies emanating from Judd Apatow. It was directed by "Undeclared" writer Nicholas Stoller, and only produced by Apatow, but it's an obvious cousin of Superbad, The 40 Year Old Virgin and especially Knocked Up.

At Mahalo the other day, we discussed whether Apatow's motley team of comic actors has a "Pack" name yet. Rat Pack, Frat Pack...what comes next? I'd propose Whack Pack, because all of their films glorify unfuckable nerds, but Howard Stern's already using that one. Other suggestions are welcome.

Anyway, like all the other Packs that have come before them, the Whack Pack's schtick has started to wear thin after only a few films. There's an unrelenting sameness to these movies, beyond the similarities of their protagonists. (Apatow has defined his genre as "nerdy guys with hot chicks," and Sarah Marshall proudly carries on this tradition.)

The concept of melding the subversive fun of gross-out/stoner humor with the sweetness of a screwball romance is a really good one, but Apatow just kind of puts these two styles side-by-side in his movies rather than really letting them play off of one another. (Compare that to the Farrelly's Something About Mary, still a better film than any from Apatow's collection, where the gross-out shock scene inform the main action...Mary's such a cool chick because she'll overlook things like her date lighting her neighbor's dog aflame or getting his semen in her hair).

Sarah Marshall, I think, represents something of a tipping point for Judd & Co. It's certainly not a bad film, and it's far far far more likable and funny than the atrocious Apatow-produced Walk Hard from last year. But like that painful dud, Sarah Marshall is lazy and formulaic and predictable, implying that this sudden, massive outpouring of material from Apatow's R-Rated Comedy Factory may have depleted the man's reserve of funny.

The writer-star of Sarah Marshall, Jason Segel, first worked with Apatow on the awesome "Freaks and Geeks," and popped up in a supporting role in Knocked Up. He works fairly well as the romantic lead here, and seems as capable as Apatow or Seth Rogen at penning dick jokes, but I'm still convinced he's better used as a wacky supporting character. (He was fantastic in "Undeclared" as Carla Gallo's creepy ex-boyfriend Eric).

Segel plays Peter Bretter, a composer for the TV show "Crime Scene: Scene of the Crime," starring his girlfriend, Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell), as a no-nonsense homicide detective. (The brief clips we get from "Crime Scene," a biting send-up of "CSI," are among the film's highlights).

When Sarah dumps Peter for the ludicrous British rock star Aldous Snow (Russell Brand), he pretty much falls to pieces. A string of painful one-night stands (including one with Gallo) convinces Peter that he needs a change of scenery, so he jets off to Hawaii. Regrettably, he realizes, immediately after checking in with the cute girl at the front desk (Mila Kunis), that Sarah and her new beau are staying at the very same Hawaiian resort.

(A brief note here about Kunis, who's cute but somewhat forgettable in the film and whom I probably won't bring up again...She has a terrible-looking fake tan. Atrocious. I get that she's not normally tan, and that her character's supposed to live in Hawaii, but couldn't she have just arrived on the set a week early and gotten a real tan? She looks orange here, and it's shocking to me that a major movie studio with millions of dollars can't get an actress a healthy, natural tan.)

From about 15 minutes in, you can pretty much see all of the plot developments coming. Peter cries a lot about his break-up, then slowly discovers that life still has a lot to offer, even without his famous celebrity girlfriend. He flirts with the front desk girl, he forms a few friendships with some of the resort's employees and guests, he learns a little bit about himself and so forth.

I expect a romantic comedy to have a familiar storyline, but what makes Sarah Marshall tiresome is that most of the jokes themselves, the "shenanigans" if you will, come off as familiar and perfunctory. Bill Hader (a Superbad veteran), for example, tries his best to make Peter's brother-in-law, with whom he videochats on his laptop, memorable in his few scenes, but I wasn't even sure I understood the concept behind his character. He's uptight? He loves his wife?

I saw Apatow moderate a Q&A with Daniel Day-Lewis and P.T. Anderson last year, and had the same feeling watching him on stage that I had watching this movie. Weary of ceaseless, sophomoric dick, vag and gay jokes. Nonplussed by shock humor. Ready for something new.

Segel's script tries to separate itself from the pack by including less fratboy humor while including more nudity (mostly male) and frank, overt sexuality. I'd say it works about half the time. He gets big laughs for playing a long, dramatic sequence in the buff. And Kristen Bell's very hot and funny, so I won't complain about a montage of her and Brand in a variety of acrobatic sexual positions, even though I doubt she'd wear a bra throughout that kind of lovemaking marathon. A sub-plot with "30 Rock" star Jack McBrayer as a virgin unable to pleasure his new bride, however, misses "comedy" entirely and heads straight for "cringe-worthy and uncomfortable."

Like most comedies that only work 50-75% of the time, Forgetting Sarah Marshall wears out its welcome, and an extended sequence near the end in which Peter performs his Dracula rock opera could seriously be lost altogether. (It's supposed to be really ridiculous and campy, but that doesn't mean we want to see a whole lot of it at the end of an already-long comedy). I sense that most audiences who will see the movie will like it, because they're fans of the actors and the style and because it's good enough to keep your interest. But I'm also starting to doubt that Apatow will be able to keep this pace up for more than another year or so, and whether or not I will ever again be excited to see one of his movies. Maybe the whole point is to make as much as possible for a few years and then take off for Hawaii himself.

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