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Forgetting Sarah Marshall a Captivating Comedy

Observer Scene | Sunday, April 20, 2008

Jason Segel has been a card-carrying member of the Judd Apatow gang since television’s “Freaks and Geeks,” in 1999, but in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” the actor successfully comes to the forefront as both writer and star.

Segel, who has already proven himself as a television actor as Marshall in CBS’s “How I Met Your Mother,” took a step on the road to film stardom as one of Ben’s stoner roommates in 2007’s “Knocked Up.” “Sarah Marshall,” Segel’s first screenplay, should put him in the ranks with previous Apatow stars Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill and Michael Cera.

“Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” is the self-described “romantic disaster movie” produced by Apatow. It is a much-needed relief from comedies like “Knocked Up” and “Superbad,” which feature men constantly joking about sex and women using an excess of foul language meant to shock the viewer into laughing. “Sarah Marshall” still has some of the cruder elements of those comedies (Segel is naked quite a bit), but they are toned down enough to give this untraditional romantic comedy a bigger heart and make it more accessible to a wider audience. This is truly a comedy for both sexes – not just one of those movies in the “women will also enjoy” category.

Segel stars as Peter Bretter, a musician dating TV actress Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell), who stars in the fictional “Crime Scene: Scene of the Crime.” Peter composes the music for “Crime Scene,” but his real dream is to finish his puppet rock opera about Dracula. However, after Sarah dumps him for rock star Aldous Snow (Russell Brand), Peter’s dreams are put on hold when he loses all motivation to do anything but drink and cry. Peter’s step-brother, Brian (Bill Hader), convinces him to move on, so Peter decides to take a trip to Hawaii to get his mind off of his former five-year flame. When Peter arrives at his hotel, he discovers that Sarah and Aldous are staying there too, but hotel receptionist Rachel (Mila Kunis) befriends Peter and helps him cope with the miserable situation.

It may be too convenient that out of every vacation destination in the world and out of all the hotels in Hawaii, Peter and Sarah end up at the same one, but there wouldn’t be a movie otherwise. Besides, there are too many other things to focus on and laugh at than this plot point, like Peter’s new friendships with the hotel staff, including a surfing instructor (Paul Rudd) and nervous newlywed Darald (Jack McBrayer). Jonah Hill even shows up as a waiter creepily obsessed with Aldous Snow.

There are no weak links in the cast, but if two actors deserved more attention they would be Hader and Brand. Audiences will recognize Hader from “Saturday Night Live” and “Superbad,” but “Sarah Marshall” marks a turn for the actor as he isn’t doing an impression or playing a dumb cop. Instead, he’s playing a normal person just trying to slap some sense into his step-brother. It’s a role that could be easily forgettable with a lesser comedian, but Hader manages to steal scenes and stand out.

Brand similarly establishes himself as a scene stealer as pompous rock star Aldous Snow. Brand’s acting and Segel’s writing manage to make Aldous a multidimensional character that is sympathetic despite his many, many flaws and his mistreatment of Sarah.

Mila Kunis, whose face has virtually been missing from any screen since “That ’70s Show” (she continues to voice Meg Griffin in “Family Guy”), also should not be overlooked. Kunis’ character is well-developed, complex and funny, and not just an unattainable, unflawed goddess, which is so typical of Apatow films. Kunis, with her exotic looks and comical voice, is a welcome return to the screen, and serves as the ultimate foil to Bell’s blond, misguided Sarah Marshall.

“Forgetting Sarah Marshall” is a romantic comedy from the male-perspective, but it still manages to portray the female viewpoint well through the characters of Rachel and Sarah, making it easily accessible and entertaining to all audiences. The film is long at 112 minutes, but this does not matter since the characters are so hilarious and inviting. Peter is a lovable goof who has just lost his way for a little while, and we find ourselves wanting to help him forget Sarah Marshall too, just as long as he keeps his clothes on.