Sometimes a movie just clicks in a way that is totally subjective. Especially comedies. I know all art, to some extent, is in the eye of the beholder, but I think comedies often just come down to taste and personal funny bones. And, for me, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is the peak of comedies where just about every single joke is in line with my own personal sense of humor.
Jason Segel is the auteur of the film, writing it partially based on his own romantic misadventures and starring it. The movie is also a Judd Apatow production and very much on-brand: a schlubby man-baby matures into personal and romantic adulthood.
Let’s follow that thread for a moment: Though it’s a distinctly Apatow film in most ways, there are a few key differences in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. This time, the man needs to reject the conventional middle class nuclear family life with steady, boring, “grown up” job in favor of a personal passion dream project. Peter’s growth is in rejecting the messy long time relationship in favor of the new love; his heart is opened not by accepting and fixing the broken relationship, but by moving on. So, in some ways, it’s actually kind of the opposite of a movie like Knocked Up which champions the traditional job and family structure as a sign of maturity.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall is a very raunchy movie, but it has an added layer of “squirm humor” — i.e., socially uncomfortable situations. Fans of The Office will feel right at home, probably even moreso than, e.g., fans of The 40 Year-Old Virgin. Plenty of scenes here revolve around characters (most often Segel’s Peter) engaging in awkward conversations or humiliating themselves in some way.
After Peter is dumped by the titular Sarah Marshall, a TV star played by Kristen Bell, he tries hard to rebound before deciding to travel to Hawaii to clear his mind. But what do you know? Sarah Marshall is there with her new boyfriend, who is a dark reflection Peter’s own insecurities at his boring life. The new man is a rock star named Aldous Snow played with a delicious aloofness and self-superiority (think Bono crossed with a yoga instructor). Meanwhile, Peter makes connections with various staff members and other guests as he attempts to forget Sarah Marshall.
Mila Kunis plays the fourth prong of this love quadrilateral as someone who gives Peter some pity attention that slowly morphs into genuine affection. Yep, that’s right: Jason Segel simultaneously has sexual tension with both Kunis and Bell. It’s almost Woody Allen level casting of absurdly beautiful women as romantic partners opposite a self-insert schmuck.
I spent the majority of this review so far discussing what this movie is rather than why I like it in part because that’s kind of hard to define. For starters, I just think it’s really, really funny. The ensemble is phenomenal and the script is one of the most quotable of any comedy I’ve ever seen. All of the leads leave really impressions of well-defined characters; Brand, in particular, gets some of my favorites line readings in recent comedy history. But it might be Kunis who comes off looking best: Beyond her heart-stopping good looks, she has terrific comic chops and great chemistry with everyone else in the cast. She and Segel really sell the romcom highs and lows so that I root for them to make it.
As great as the leads are, the colorful side characters are just as memorable. The hotel staff serves as a Greek chorus of the unfolding romantic drama. We also get to know some of the other hotel guests, including Jack McBreyer as a sexually frustrated newlywed. Unsurprisingly, two highlights are Bill Hader and especially Paul Rudd in fairly small supporting roles. Rudd as a burnt out surfing instructor has a couple of one-liner deliveries that have me doubled over every time I watch it. It’s a Hall of Fame cameo.
Beyond the comedy, the romantic elements in the story are more thoughtful and subdued than is typical of raunchy comedies. The break up is given proper pathos and explored authentically, matching the precarious emotional state that I’ve felt during my break ups in my younger years. We get a real sense of the weight of the relationship between Peter and Sarah and understand simultaneously why it might have worked and why it might not work anymore. We also see how Kunis‘s character, Rachel, is a polar opposite of Sarah in a way that might be good for Peter. So, beyond being one of my favorite comedies ever, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is also one of my favorite romantic comedies ever.
One X-factor elevating the movie is the vicarious joy of spending time in a beautiful Hawaiian resort. There’s something so blissful about the waves and cliffs and clear skies captured on film. It makes you want to hop in the screen and grab a mai tai with these folks.
One last bit of flavor that puts Forgetting Sarah Marshall over the top: Peter’s love of puppets and his dream of doing a Dracula puppet musical. I want to see the whole thing filmed. The performance of “Dracula‘s Lament” by Segel is one of my favorite music moments in all of cinema: It’s both hilarious hearing Segel sing a ballad in an exaggerated Bela Lugosi accent and kind of a moving number. For whatever reason, that’s the particular moment the movie clicks into place for me: You buy into this wacky romance centered around this huge-hearted weirdo.
As I’ve gotten older and revisited Forgetting Sarah Marshall, its male-centric perspective has become more striking to me; though the women are taken seriously and given some depth, they still exist primarily to serve Peter’s growth and happiness. Peter is not far off from being a toxic “nice guy” and, though I think Segel takes the drama seriously, the very final interaction of Peter and Sarah‘s break up is pretty nasty and mean-spirited where the rest of the movie is generous and sympathetic.
Nonetheless, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is a favorite of mine. It’s a film that I treasure and that will always put me in a good mood. I know I’m overrating it a bit to call it a “masterpiece,” but I’m sticking to it.
- Review Project: 2009 Top 100
Masterpiece: Tour De Good (8/8)
Note: This review was originally published elsewhere. Please excuse brevity or inconsistencies in style. If you have questions or feedback, please leave a comment or contact me.