High scores for a sex romp

For­get­ting Sarah Mar­shall ( MA15+)

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Evan Wil­liams

Na­tional re­lease

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

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