As a great man once exclaimed, “My God, has it been that long“.
A decade ago, your humble correspondent was still in the first flushes of his Proprietary Cinema Subscription Card membership. The thrill of being able to watch any scheduled programming without the psychological responsibility of having to justify its individual value for money was still fresh and exciting. Rather than waiting for ‘Saturday night’ comedies to hit the £5 shelf of the local supermarket, they could be safely enjoyed at the source.
In 2008, the cinematic era of the Frat-Pack had shifted into that of Team Apatow, and the director of Knocked Up on production duty meant that Nicholas Stoller’s 15-rated, foul-mouthed breakup comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall came with an expectation of mirth, but no real heavyweight anticipation.
Written by its leading-man, the film sees Jason Segel star as Peter Bretter, a disillusioned, jobbing composer in his thirties, with an abandoned, half-written musical and stuck in a rut of creating incidental music for a TV procedural cop-drama. Peter’s five-year relationship with the show’s star, Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell) flows at a similar dissatisfying rate, until she abruptly dumps him, eventually confessing that ‘there’s someone else’.
Heartbroken, our hero embarks on a brief string of one night stands, before deciding to take a vacation to the Hawaiian resort he and Sarah had always talked about visiting. There, he discovers that Sarah’s already arrived with her new boyfriend, the notorious lothario rock star Aldous Snow (Russell Brand). Deciding to stay on-holiday anyway, Peter is befriended by hotel receptionist Rachel Jansen (Mila Kunis), who may just be able to bridge the emotional gap between what he wants and what he needs…
In terms of the raw ingredients, Stoller’s work is a textbook entry for the genre. The narrative lends itself to lewd and raucous situations, and the script is peppered with furious four-letter ad-libs and a couple of gratuitous ‘anatomical’ shots for good measure. With its eventual conclusion as foregone as its f-bombs, the final product contains almost everything which has come to dog the studio-comedy format over the years (before and since). As such, Segel’s excellence shines even more brightly.
The core of Forgetting Sarah Marshall is written with real heart (albeit still a magnificently self-centred one), and the worst excesses of the screenplay are saved by the amiability of its cast. First and foremost in this league is Mila Kunis, who may well have the most linear motivations of the players, but whose character remains suitably complicated nonetheless.
Peter’s rejected everyman figure spends much of the movie in the depths of self-pity, but Segel manages to inject enough sympathy into the performance to prevent the audience turning against him. Likewise, Kristen Bell’s duplicitous, career-fixated actress Sarah and her shallow, narcissistic upgrade brought to life by Russell Brand should, by all rights, be utterly unbearable – but their performances are funny and engaging. While we wouldn’t to hang out with these people in real life, it’s great watching them be awful on-screen.
Supporting these are smaller character-turns from Bill Hader, Liz Cackowski, Paul Rudd and Jonah Hill, all of whom are given free-rein mine the most from their improvisation skills, but none of whom over-egg that pudding (not in the final edit, at any rate). Their combined efforts, under Stoller’s direction, lead to a consistently amusing and surprisingly charming 110 minutes.
Underneath all this and adding to the ‘replay value’ is an absolutely corking soundtrack. A mix of surfer punk, Broadway musical numbers, leather-trousered power ballads and Hawaiian-language pop cover versions, it’s like a playlist compiled by your weirdest but dearest friend. Sharing the symbiotic-essence of titles like Inside Llewyn Davis and Sing Street, each listen of the album makes the movie more enjoyable, and vice-versa, until they escalate to a point where the formats become indivisible. The diegetic, in-film pieces work because Segel is a musician so doesn’t have to ‘act’ playing, and Brand’s already-honed stage persona lends itself perfectly to his performances.
All of this success only encourages further returns to the well of course. Jason Segel and Paul Rudd would go on to try and recapture the hapless magic in 2009’s I Love You, Man, while Mila Kunis’s 2011 appearance in Friends With Benefits was clearly riding the same coat-tails. Most notably, Russell Brand reprised his Aldous Snow role in 2010’s spin-off, Get Him To The Greek, along with co-star Jonah Hill in a different (but crucially similar) role. And while all of these have points in their favour, they just can’t compare to a man having a midlife crisis in Hawaii before writing a Muppet-Dracula musical on his road to redemption.
It’s not that this shouldn’t work on paper – quite the opposite – but it’s the perfect tropical storm of a likeable cast, sympathetic characters and outstanding musical accompaniment. Much like 2007’s Superbad, this comedy-vehicle becomes more than the sum of its profane parts.
You may not have forgotten Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but you probably don’t remember just how great it is…
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