23 April 2008

Mooney at the Movies: Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Segel takes the call to save the romantic comedy. (Universal)

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (A)

Starring Jason Segel, Kristen Bell, Russell Brand, Mila Kunis, Jonah Hill
Written by Segel
Directed by Nicholas Stoller

From the early scenes of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, we instantly become aware that Jason Segel is a fearless comic performer. True, he's not much too look at, but that doesn't stop him from flashing his bidness at least three times throughout the film.

However, the goal of Forgetting Sarah Marshall is not simply to shock, but also to endear. Segel has been under Judd Apatow's wing for some time now, as he starred in both of the late, great series Freaks & Geeks and Undeclared. But boy, oh, boy, it looks like he's surpassed Apatow now in terms of brilliant writing. While I was a big fan of both The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, this is actually better than both, as Segel, writing here for the first time, makes all his characters three-dimensional.

But back to that first flash. Sarah, Peter's live-in, out-of-his-league girlfriend, walks in to give him the unfortunate news. "Get on some clothes," she says, "and we'll talk." But knowing that if he gets dressed, this situation is real, and this break-up is really happening. Well, it happens anyways, and after meaningless hook-ups and tears, his step-brother (Bill Hader, a great second banana) encourages him to take a vacation to get her out of his head.

And take that vacation he does. Flying out to Hawaii, he unfortunately bumps into his ex, with her new beau, rock star and herpes case Aldous Snow (the hilarious Russell Brand, a well-known Brit comic getting his first Stateside exposure here). What could have been a grating comic set-up, is actually pulled off brilliantly. And even when FSM trips into a cliché, it recovers so quickly it's almost miraculous.

Mila Kunis, finally stepping outside of Family Guy and That '70s Show, could have easily fallen into Jennifer Aniston/Vanilla Love Interest mode, but is given so much more to do here than would be required in a lesser comedy. Rachel used to be an ambitious but wild girl who followed her slacker boyfriend to Hawaii and let her dreams slip away when he did. The blossoming romance between her and Peter seems so authentic, it's as foreign to romantic comedies as the man parts. And mostly, FSM feels real while still managing to tickle your funny bone. The balancing act is the real revelation here.

It will be interesting to see what Segel does from here. There's talks of a Muppet movie relaunch and I'm sure he's still got a few more seasons of How I Met Your Mother to crank out, but I can't wait for his screenwriting follow-up. If it's anywhere as good as this, comedy may still be able to saved after all. For now, we'll just enjoy this tremendous vacation.

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