High scores for a sex romp
Forgetting Sarah Marshall ( MA15+)
THERE’S nothing like inventing a new genre to raise a filmmaker’s reputation. Judd Apatow, the producer of Forgetting Sarah Marshall , has described his new film as Hollywood’s first ‘‘ romantic disaster comedy’’: meaning, I take it, a romantic comedy about the terminal bust- up of a relationship.
It’s a wonder no one thought of it before. Most romantic comedies involve disasters of some kind. I’d always assumed that It Happened One Night was a romantic disaster comedy. And it’s certainly true that Hollywood disaster movies with romantic themes tend to be laughable, Titanic being a good example.
I’d prefer to call Forgetting Sarah Marshall a no- holds- barred contemporary sex comedy. And that’s nothing Apatow should be ashamed of. He has directed or produced all the best recent Hollywood sex comedies, and one or two have been box- office hits.
Apatow is now recognised as the leading exponent of this form of comedy, much as Woody Allen was considered the inventor of the existential 1980s sex comedy, and Preston Sturges, among others, a leading exponent of the screwball sex comedy of an earlier generation; until the Hays Office and the Legion of Decency clamped down on Hollywood’s risque tendencies and turned sex into romance.
The distinguishing features of an Apatow comedy are crude language, explicit sex of a rather farcical kind, hip dialogue ( usually very funny), a keen satirical eye and a leading male character of conspicuous nerdishness who finds himself in some pathetic or pitiable situation from which he has to escape.
Last year’s Knocked Up, with Seth Rogen, was described by its director as ‘‘ a dirty filthy film with a heart of gold’’. It proved to be box- office gold and I found it much funnier than Apatow’s previous film, The 40- Year- Old Virgin .
Forgetting Sarah Marshall may be the best Apatow comedy so far: consistently sharp, its Hawaiian locations easy on the eye, and with a well- developed strain of pathos. The director is Nicholas Stoller, who did scripts for an early Apatow television show, but the credit has to go to Jason Segel, who wrote the screenplay and composed songs for the film.
For good measure, Segel also plays the main character, a struggling musician called Peter Bretter, who is dumped by his girlfriend Sarah ( Kristen Bell) in the opening scene. Sarah is a grade- A celebrity, the star of Crime Scene, a high- rating TV police procedural. Peter knows the news is bad when Sarah arrives at his apartment one night after a day in the studio and greets him with the dire words: ‘‘ As you know, I love you very much.’’
Audiences may find it hard to love Sarah as much as she loves Peter. Behind her seeming innocence are layers of malice and superficiality, and we wonder why she was drawn to boofy Pete in the first place. But the character rings true. Her TV show requires her to deliver gruesome forensic descriptions of murders and mutilated bodies, which she does with a grim relish that is at odds with the girlish sweetness and skittishness of her off- screen behaviour.
Peter’s job is to provide the background music for Sarah’s show, and this allows the filmmakers to poke some well- deserved fun at the nastiness and fake solemnity of reality crime shows.
When Peter — still recovering from the shock of being ditched — supplies a jaunty musical riff instead of the dark and ominous note required for Sarah’s reference to a severed penis, we know the jokes in Forgetting Sarah Marshall won’t be constrained by conventional standards of good taste.
Starting a new life and forgetting Sarah Marshall proves harder than Peter imagined. After seeking advice from a friendly doctor (‘‘ Wear a condom and f . . k everything that moves’’) and consulting his equally eccentric brother ( Bill Hader), Peter heads to Hawaii for fresh air and a change of scene.
Who should be staying in the same luxury resort but Sarah, accompanied by her new boyfriend, Aldous Snow, an ultra- hip, leatherclad, greasily dreadlocked English pop star and notorious super stud, hilariously played by Russell Brand with an obnoxious cockney accent.
The fact that Aldous turns out to be an amusing and intelligent fellow when we get to know him only deepens Peter’s despair. The film’s fraught foursome is completed by Rachel ( Mila Kunis), a good- natured receptionist who helps Peter settle into a more expensive suite than he could otherwise afford.
Apatow’s comedies may have little use for subtlety, but they steer clear of the gross excesses of much Hollywood teen comedy of a decade ago, when the Farrelly brothers and their imitators were challenging accepted norms.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall is crammed with snappy dialogue, funny minor characters and fine visual gags. Peter’s disconsolate mood isn’t helped by his fellow hotel guests: an assortment of ecstatic honeymooners and eager Japanese tourists, with weddings in progress and moonstruck lovers proposing at nearby tables.
Aldous is the lead singer of a group called Infant Sorrow and he gives a splendid parody of a gyrating rock star in full contortionist mode. The contest of orgasmic shrieking and moaning between the estranged lovers, when they find themselves within earshot of each other in adjoining rooms, rivals the best remembered scene in When Harry Met Sally .
Segel more than rises to the occasion, becoming more likable and less doltish as the story unfolds. He was one of Rogen’s slacker mates in Knocked Up and may emerge as the quintessential Apatow hero: dogged, gullible, soft- centred, unfairly put- upon. Other Apatow regulars — Paul Rudd, first seen in the The 40- Year- Old Virgin , and Jonah Hill, from Knocked Up — appear in small roles. If the film relies more on disconnected incidents and the presence of oddballs than it does on coherent narrative and character, the results are nonetheless agreeable.
Of the two possible endings — will Sarah be forgotten, or will she not? — I was pleased to see the less predictable, more realistic option preferred. There’s rarely room for false sentiment in an Apatow comedy. Those who feel sorry for Sarah when Crime Scene is canned by the network will take heart from her new show, Animal Instincts, in which the same dire, doomladen TV techniques are applied to the investigation of errant pet behaviour.
There’s also a fine, upbeat finale, when a Dracula musical composed by Peter in his spare time is performed to great acclaim by a puppet company, with Segel emoting tearfully at a white piano. Shades of Dudley Moore! At least one of the songs in the show sounded rather good, I thought.
The film should do well. Normally I would advise the prudish to avoid it at all costs, but they may find themselves laughing as much as I did.
Three’s a crowd: Kristen Bell, Jason Segel, Jonah Hill and Russell Brand in Forgetting Sarah Marshall