It must be nice to be friends with Judd Apatow. Jason Segel, an Apatow alumnus from the "Freaks and Geeks" and "Undeclared" days, is the latest of the pack to write and star in his own self-deprecating comedy, this time about a guy who gets dumped by his famous-actress girlfriend, plans a vacation to get away from it all and lands at the same resort where she is vacationing with her new rock-star, sex-god lover.
If "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" lacks the heady mix of sheer exuberance and unexpected maturity of the granddaddy of the genre, Apatow's "40-Year-Old Virgin," it's more soulful than "Knocked Up" and more inclusive than "Superbad." As Peter Bretter, Segel is the latest variation on the Apatowian hero. (Are we still talking about Apatow? He produced the movie, but the script was written by Segel and directed by Nicholas Stoller, once a writer on "Undeclared.") He's a relatively grown-up, slimmed-down, handsome and polished (I did say relatively) version of the Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill paradigm, the kind of guy you're meant to love because he is self-effacing and unassuming and doesn't demand too much of himself.
A film composer who provides the "dark, ominous" tones for his TV star girlfriend's dumb forensic crime series, Peter is happiest while sitting on the couch in Costco sweatpants, inhaling a mixing bowl full of Froot Loops. Not that he's a loser; he's just low-key and quirky. He has a good job and side-project he's passionate about: a rock opera for puppets about the love life of Dracula, with whom he identifies.
Pete's girlfriend, the Sarah Marshall of the title and of the clever, ubiquitous marketing campaign, is not as charmed by his eccentricities as we're meant to be. A tiny, tightly wound Tinkerbell played by Kristin Bell, she's ambitious, successful, enjoys the spotlight and has been wearying of Peter's couch-bound ways for some time. Even if you can't take her career too seriously -- the movie certainly doesn't -- you can't really blame her. She may be shallow, but at least she has many recognizable human qualities, chief among them being her feelings for a sexy, supremely silly British pop star.
Not that it's easy at first to see what she sees in Aldous Snow (Russell Brand). A preening, studiously disheveled man-child given to busting out his Kama Sutra moves on every possible occasion, Aldous makes Peter look like a model of old-fashioned masculinity and a stand-up guy. Over the course of a few days at a Hawaiian resort, however, Peter gets to know the real Aldous as presumably not even Sarah knows him (or appreciates him). Meanwhile, he finds himself increasingly drawn to Rachel, a beautiful and sympathetic receptionist played by Mila Kunis. Rachel also knows what it's like to have her heart broken, and is wary and cagey around Peter despite her obvious attraction to him. The two fitful couples are thrown together throughout their vacation and the sharp, four-way interactions provide some of the best scenes. As the foreigner and the society drop-out, Brand and Kunis' characters are able to cast an outsider's eye on Peter and Sarah's relationship, and a new perspective is something that they both turn out to need.
The roles of Sarah and Rachel might have been one-dimensional and shrill, but neither Segel's script nor Kunis and Bell's performances allow that to happen. "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" delights in its frequent raunchy moments -- to get any more full-frontal Segel you'd have to move in with him -- but it functions on a mellower, more rueful level.
"Forgetting Sarah Marshall" is funny, though I didn't find myself laughing at the same guffaw-per-minute rate as the people around me. Segel is more charming and more believable as a romantic lead than Rogen or Hill, who makes an appearance here as a waiter besotted with the rock star in his midst, and his realizations seem more epiphanic and hard-won as the movie lurches periodically into some flashback or private moment packed with painful insight or cringe-inducing realization. But at times its energy slackens, and it starts to feel a little like the friend who needs to talk about her break-up at all hours for twice as long as the relationship lasted in the first place. ("It's like 'The Sopranos,' " Bill Hader, as Peter's stepbrother, tells him. "It's over. Find a new show.")
"Forgetting Sarah Marshall" resists punishing Sarah (though she does learn a valuable lesson) for abandoning our schlubby hero for someone with a little more flash and avoids making a passive fantasy of Rachel. It mines its characters' weaknesses for humor, but it empathizes with and embraces their weaknesses too. The movie's big revelation, though, is Brand's Aldous, whose idiot-Lothario exterior masks a frank, accidentally wise and Yoda-like interior, and whom we grow to like more and more despite getting to better know him and his faults. The same can be said about the movie.