28 April 2008

Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Directed by: Nicholas Stoller
Written by: Jason Segel
Full Credits from IMDb

Grade: B+

Wouldn’t the state of modern, mainstream, multiplex American cinema be so much stronger if all its generic romantic-comedies were as hilarious and sincere as Forgetting Sarah Marshall? (Its irritating, contemptible ad campaign not withstanding.) With a firm grasp of the workings of seriocomedy, the film (often) succeeds in moving beyond its superficial hilarity because it’s serious but refuses to take itself seriously; usually laughing at itself, it subtly succeeds dramatically, masking its emotion in self-deprecating humor so that it’s heartfelt but rarely sappy. (“I didn’t know it was a comedy,” star Jason Segel says at one point, a possible metamoment, of his show-within-the-movie, “but then someone told me and it really just opened things up.”)

I qualify with “rarely,” however, because unfortunately, with the irrepressibly prolific Judd Apatow producing, the film trips over the same failing that seems to do in most of his films, including that other Apatow gift to a former Freaks and Geeks cast member, Knocked Up: it goes on too long and has too many plot lines to wrap up, often involving secondary and even tertiary couples, that it has to pause the comedy for second-rate drama. But Sarah Marshall has a strength not even Apatow can diminish, the infinitely likable Segel, who also wrote the (presumably much-tinkered-with) script. He not only possesses the natural comic gift common to those in Apatow’s circle, but is able to bring a subtle measure of pathos to the film, best encapsulated by his, ahem, Dracula rock opera with puppets. When Segel sings, in a Count Chocula accent to Jim Steinman-inflected piano music, “if I see Van Helsing, I will slay him,” it’s first and foremost guffaw-worthy; but at the same time it’s also sad, with, absurdly, a bit of pitiable truth.

Though not often featured lately in Apatow productions because studio execs find him excessively strange, Segel has always been one of his most amiable players because he’s so easy to feel bad for. Here, he elicits our sympathy from the first reel when his long-time girlfriend, the eponymous Marshall (Kristen Bell) dumps him in a state of defenselessness, without even a towel to hide [his] behind. (The Simpsons Movie seems to have broken down the wall for full frontal male nudity in American comedies.) A man brandishing his penis on-screen is funny—isn’t it?—but a man butt-naked and weeping is also endearing. (Questionably endearing, however, is Segel’s unhealthy obsession with his own penis, which he twice reveals to the audience in book-ending scenes; he also has his doctor declare, “it’s a good-looking dick, it’s a beautiful dick” and, eventually, he goes so far as to cast it as his moral compass, when it refuses to become erect for a woman he probably ought not be sleeping with.)

When a series of awkward hook-ups prove unfulfilling, the broken-hearted Segel—established as such by his choice of songs, “Nothing Compares 2 U” and “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now”—packs it up and heads to Hawaii for a holiday. The archipelago is the perfect post-break-up comic backdrop, with its contrapuntal surfeit of newly weds, engagement proposals and happy couples, but the decision to head for the Pacific seems more motivated from a desire by the pasty Apatow Gang to catch some sun and treat themselves to pastel-colored drinks. (As though, to paraphrase a Simpsons catch phrase, “the freaks and geeks are going to Hawaii!”) It must be nice to be able to procure sizeable Hollywood budgets to indulge your vacation whims. As one character notes, “Hawaii is a place for people to escape, for people who can’t deal with the real world.”

That, in a nutshell, sounds like the prototypical Apatow hero—a manboy who can’t function in the real world, at least not without the love of a good woman to set him straight. In accordance with the tropes of the genre, the length of the film serves as a means for Segel to get to know a nice girl, Mila Kunis, so he can eventually not bed her but make love to, er, with her. The plot may carry a touch of sexism, as A.O. Scott suggests—what with a plethora of fetching lookers fighting to claim a piece of Segel’s schlub so that he may be redeemed—but the relationship is good for Kunis, too. It encourages her to “go back to school”. (Uh, maybe.)

To his credit, Apatow has refined his formula, making it a bit more sophisticated (or, “he has become cautious enough to preempt the brand of criticism that met Knocked Up”), by turning the tables a bit near the end when he exposes the hero, Segel, not as a victim but as a bad boyfriend, a lazy and inattentive lover who got what he had coming. (But then Stoller has to spoil it all by cuing something stupid like a soft guitar riff.) Some couples break up because they can’t grow up if they’re still together, the filmmakers suggest. That’s an interesting twist, adding a measure of complexity to the characters, at least by date movie standards, but is it really necessary? Above all else, Apatow & Co. are naturally hilarious and have the remarkable ability to repeatedly provoke out loud laughter. So the question is, why does Judd see it necessary, time and again, to try and prove his hand as a dramatist? Is it a halfhearted, even condescending nod toward the female demographic, following the American Pie formula for success in which there’s ribald humor for the boys and romance for the girls? Apatow has yet to direct or produce a well-told story, not just a stack of comic set pieces in which his drama runs away with him. He needs to leave more for the (admittedly already crowded) deleted scenes section of the DVD and allow the stories wrap up a bit more quickly, even if it means they wrap up sloppily. (Regardless of its hilarity, even Superbad could have lost a reel or two.) Segel succeeds because he hides his emotions behind his comedy; Apatow ought to follow suit by playing up his comedic strengths, not hiding them behind layers of storytelling that never arises above the level of conventional. If you can’t be Woody Allen, it’s better not even to try.

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