Friday, October 3, 2008

Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Director: Nicholas Stoller
Starring: Jason Segal, Kristen Bell, Mila Kunis, Russell Brand, Bill Hader, Paul Rudd, Jonah Hill

Running Time: 111 min.
Rating: R

**1/2 (out of ****)

When Forgetting Sarah Marshall was released in theaters 5 months ago I couldn’t wait to see it. At least that was until nearly everyone who did wouldn’t stop telling me how awesome Mila Kunis was, while Kristen Bell “does what she can” with a one-dimensional bitch character. There’s no sense hiding it: Everyone knows Bell is really the only reason I wanted to see the film. But the more I heard about her role and how she’s used the more my interest started to wane. It went from a movie I desperately wanted to see to figuring it wouldn’t be the end of the world if I waited until it hit DVD. So after falling off my radar until recently I was ready to approach the film with what can best be described as cautious optimism. Unfortunately that optimism ended up being false not only because what I heard about Bell’s role was true, but because that’s just one of the film’s many troubles.

The major problem that plagues Forgetting Sarah Marshall is nearly the exact same one that I thought sunk last year’s other overrated Judd Apatow-branded project, Knocked Up. It takes a realistic, depressing situation and attempts to make it funny, struggling the whole way to find the right tone. I don’t know about you but where I come from a good, honest guy being cruelly dumped by his impossibly hot TV star girlfriend isn’t funny. It’s tragic. No more hilarious than, say, an unwanted pregnancy.

What makes this slightly better (or less worse) than Knocked Up is that the script goes to more interesting places emotionally, which turns it into a compelling drama at times. It’s not a comedy, despite what you’ve heard. Richard Roeper, who isn’t exactly known as a quote whore, declared it “One of the funniest damn movies I’ve ever seen!” I’d love to ask him what he found so funny because I hardly laughed at all. I want to recommend the film for being smart and realistic about relationships while containing worthy performances, but precisely because of those reasons it doesn’t work.
Peter Bretter (How I Met Your Mother’s Jason Segal) is the successful music composer of a hit CSI-like show, Crime Scene, which stars his girlfriend of 5 years, Sarah Marshall (Bell), for whom his world revolves around. He comes out the shower to find her in his apartment ready to dump him and insists on taking the news naked, which is supposed to be hilarious. Why? I guess because he has a penis. It’s just a gross stunt done purely for shock value so the film can be promoted with a bunch of controversial red-band trailers. It would have been much funnier if, against everyone’s expectations, she delivered deliver the traumatic news naked to ease his pain and embarrassment. It would also force me to give the film an automatic 4 stars. After Peter indulges in sex with as many random women as he can in a failed attempt to get over her, his stepbrother Bryan (an unfunny Bill Hader) suggests he get away to a luxurious Hawaiian resort to clear his mind. It’s there where he bumps into Sarah and her new boyfriend, narcissistic British rocker Aldous Snow (Russell Brand).

There’s a scene early on that’s indicative of this movie’s problems. When Sarah asked Peter what he’s doing there his response is that he came to murder her. I laughed at the line, not because it was funny, but because that event wouldn’t be so far-fetched given the film’s wildly uneven tone. Much of the first half of the picture we spend with Peter moping and crying his eyes out, all while being consoled by an annoying group of characters providing “comic relief," each one seemingly unfunnier than the next. In choosing which aspect of the film works least, this wins hands down. Remind me never to stay at this resort.

I know everyone loves Paul Rudd but as a laid-back surfer instructor he gets no laughs at all. Slightly better (but not much) is Jonah Hill making his requisite Apatow appearance as a waiter obsessed with Aldous Snow. Both are bad, but not nearly as bad as 30 Rock’s Jack McBrayer portraying an annoying newlywed who can’t satisfy his wife’s voracious sexual appetite. All of them come off as standard screenwriting inventions rather than real people, surprising given all characters in any Apatow-produced film are usually too real for their own good.

When Peter starts dating the lovely hotel receptionist Rachel (Kunis) the film improves significantly. For the most part, everyone was right about Kunis. She brightens up what could previously be considered a dark comedy, although Segal’s script makes poor choices that prevent us from falling in love with her like we should, such as giving her a gang-banger boyfriend and a sub-plot involving a topless photo. Both feel as if they were transplanted from a lesser film. At times it’s tough to tell how much of Segal’s script did work on paper and what can be blamed on poor staging from former Undeclared writer Nicholas Stoller, making his directorial debut.

The battle that unfolds between Peter and Sarah is deep and takes unexpected detours, but they’re dramatic rather than comedic. Especially when characters are lying in bed hurling hurtful insults at one another. I felt like I was watching Mike Nichols’ Closer instead of a romantic comedy. Some of Aldous’ antics were amusing and a sub-plot involving Peter’s Dracula musical starring puppets was inventive and got some giggles out of me, but I’d still stop short in labeling any of it “hilarious.” I also hurts when the studio decides to give the best scenes away in trailers and commercials. Supposedly there’s a spin off in the works focusing on Brand’s rock star and I’m not opposed to the idea because he looked like the only actor in this who was really having fun. Jason Segal reminds me a lot of his former Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared castmate Seth Rogen in that he’s a really likable leading man in a goofy down-to-Earth way. He makes it look easy and can definitely carry a movie. I just wish he were in a better one.

A crisis develops with Sarah toward the third act and the film actually has the nerve to ask us to feel sorry for her. Those who said Bell was saddled with a one-dimensional bitch character were being kind. If another actress were playing her she probably would have come across as pure evil incarnate. What's strange is the more the script tries to invest Sarah with depth and give an explanation for her behavior the more detestable she becomes. Bell tries her heart out and does a great job with the thankless part she’s been handed but it’s an uphill battle no actress should be asked to fight. What’s worse though, is that the movie slides in all these details that vaguely (and sometimes very directly) reference Bell’s career so many viewers will walk away thinking she’s playing herself, especially given the film's nasty tone. But it could also be considered a testament to how well Bell played her that anyone would think that.

I don’t pretend to represent the views of Kristen Bell fans worldwide and realize the film isn’t supposed to be a showcase for her, but she deserves better. Why did Segal have to write Sarah as an inhuman ice queen? It's bad for Bell, but worse for the story. Of course, Kunis is going to come out smelling like roses because she didn’t have to pull off the thankless part. While I liked Kunis, her performance is far from a revelation, as some have suggested, and there's no doubt in my mind that Bell could have played it better if put in the same comfy position.

I don’t know what’s going on with these Apatow produced or directed projects anymore. It seems whenever his movies try to mix raunchy, vulgar humor with emotional pathos all sorts of issues with tone starts to rear its head. Maybe the solution is to pick one or the other. Having a first time director on the job probably didn’t help because this material would be hard to get a handle on even for a seasoned pro. But it doesn’t matter what I say. Everyone will love this movie just like they loved Knocked Up and think I’m orbiting another planet. And just like that film, I’ve been telling anyone willing to listen just how frustrated I am that I didn’t like this.
You have no idea how hard it is for me to bash this film, especially the same week I’m forced to recommend a George Clooney sports comedy. It doesn't get much worse than that. Bell will be fine after this, even if it may take me much longer to recover. And as depressing as that seems, it still isn’t as depressing as the situation presented in this movie. When one of Sarah Marshall’s questionable film choices is mocked in the movie it made me wonder whether Sarah Marshall would have taken the role of Sarah Marshall. I cared about everyone in the story but found little to laugh at. It’s great that romantic comedies are now smarter and more observant, but somewhere along the way Forgetting Sarah Marshall forgot it also has to be funny.


JD said...

THis is an excellent review.
THis film was a surprise for me.
I thought I would hate but ended up loving it.
It is that awkard kind of comedy that seems in style these days.
I can see where you think it is more drama than anything else.
For me, it was Mila Kunis whos steals the show.
Paul Rudd seemed like an afterthought, but I did like Bill Hader a lot in this one.

Awesome review!!!

thebonebreaker said...

Outstanding Review Jeremy!

I agree with you 100% on this one. This one was released in the theatres the same day as The Forbidden Kingdom, which I chose to see instead, and I am glad that I did!

After hearing how hilarious and wonderful this movie was, I was sorely disappointed.

Again, Excellent Review!

jeremythecritic said...

Thanks...finally someone agrees with me on this one. I was starting to worry I was the only person who didn't dig this film.