Remembering ‘Sarah Marshall’
Goofy 2008 rom-com is worth another look.
From the moment Jason Segel opened his towel, I knew I was in trouble.
When I was 15, my parents took my friends and me to see Forgetting Sarah
Marshall. To this day, I’m not sure why I thought the latest Judd Apatowproduced comedy was the best Saturday night outing for a church youth group in Savannah, Ga., especially when 21 and Leatherheads were playing right down the hall.
My conservative parents surely wondered the same thing when, in the first five minutes, a naked, flaccid, dripping wet Peter Bretter (Segel) is dumped by his hotshot actress girlfriend Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell) and proceeds to have lots of cringe-worthy rebound sex with strangers. It’s safe to say Mom and Dad didn’t go to the movies with me for a long time after that.
But when I think of Sarah Marshall, which opened in theaters 10 years ago Wednesday, I don’t immediately think of sinking into my theater seat or the awkward car ride home. Instead, I’m reminded of the broody nights it helped me through after breakups and of all of the quotable one-liners that elicit knowing laughs in everyday conversation. (“You sound like you’re from London!”)
On paper, the movie sounds like yet another entry in the tired romanticcomedy subgenre of “schlubby sad sack gets his heart broken, winds up with another girl who’s way out of his league.” After Sarah drops him for promiscuous English rocker Aldous Snow (a scenestealing Russell Brand), Peter decides to go on a vacation to Hawaii to clear his head. The only trouble is, Sarah and Aldous are staying at the same resort when he arrives. But with the help of sympathetic hotel receptionist Rachel Jansen (Mila Kunis), he finds a new outlook on life and is even inspired to finish his long-gestating Dracula puppet musical.
While Kunis’ character is sorely underdeveloped, Segel’s script succeeds in showing both sides of a breakup. Sarah isn’t painted as a villain: Midway through the film, we learn the great efforts she took to save their relationship. But ultimately, Peter’s man-child behavior made her feel like more of a par- ent than a partner. His stepbrother, Brian (Bill Hader), and new friend, Dwayne (Da’Vone McDonald), don’t pity him either, and they tell him to stop wallowing and start dating again when he’s ready.
That concept may not sound too revolutionary now, when rom-coms The Big Sick, Netflix’s Love and FXX’s
You’re the Worst have presented us with fully realized female love interests. But
Sarah Marshall arrived on the heels of hit raunch comedies Knocked Up and
Wedding Crashers, whose portrayals of women as either humorless or vapid don’t hold up.
It also subverts tropes as one of the rare rom-coms to show men as vulnerable. Peter can’t merely shrug off Sarah: He pathetically (if also amusingly) cries when he tries to hook up with other women after their split, and he sobs alone into his wine glass watching
Project Runway when he’s reminded of her. Later, he can’t perform when Sarah comes back for makeup sex, showing that he values emotional connection over physical attraction, unlike many movie Casanovas.
That it manages to do all of this and still be laugh-out-loud funny is what makes Forgetting Sarah Marshall so insanely rewatchable, proving that the best modern rom-coms can have their heart, and their penis jokes, too.
Kind Rachel (Mila Kunis) offers heartsick Peter (Jason Segel) a shoulder to cry on in 2008’s “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.”