Forgetting Sarah Marshall

I have seen far too much of Jason Segel’s penis today. Not that I can imagine there’s any day that would be a good day for me to see his penis, or to see it any more than I have seen it today. Regardless, I have seen too much of it, specifically after viewing Forgetting Sarah Marshall. I mention this because it really is the only bad thing I can think to say about the movie, which is an incredibly realistic yet comical look at breakups and the process that people go through when they’re dumped, with some good old-fashioned raunch comedy thrown in for good measure.

Written and starring Jason Segel, the movie tells the story of Peter, a composer who has been dating actress Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell) for five years. Both work for a hit police drama TV show, allowing lots of jokes made at the expense of the overloaded C.S.I. genre. Within minutes of the movie’s start, Sarah dumps Peter, devastating the musician into a downward spiral that leads to him sleeping with every girl he meets and eventually attempting to get away from his life by taking a vacation to Hawaii… where Sarah and her new boyfriend also happen to be vacationing.

The movie keeps things moving at a brisk pace from the get-go. We get to know Peter quickly. Within five minutes we’ve seen him naked (including full-frontal nudity) and within six minutes Sarah has broken up with him. The pace does start to slow down a bit as Peter meets Rachel Jansen (Mila Kunis) and starts a new potential relationship with her, but that’s only to allow for some wonderfully awkward moments like a dinner between Peter, Rachel, Sarah, and her boyfriend, rocker Aldous Snow (Russell Brand), where he shares his philosophy of being allowed to sleep with any woman he meets.

Anyone who has seen How I Met Your Mother or Veronica Mars is well acquainted with the talent of the primary cast members, although Kunis may surprise some people since she was so limited in That 70’s Show and Brand is a relative newcomer to American audiences. As a film produced in part by Judd Apatow, I expected to see a lot more of his regulars and was surprised not to see Seth Rogen put in an appearance (Jonah Hill and Paul Rudd both have small supporting roles which are well executed). The true standout of the supporting players is Jack MacBrayer, who has been making audiences laugh as Kenneth the page on 30 Rock and shows a more risqué edge to a similar character here as a newlywed virgin on his honeymoon.

The true strength of the film isn’t the cast, although they wind up benefiting from it. The strength is in the characters built by Segel’s script. The writer has crafted such well-rounded characters that there’s no clear cut villain for the story. Sure Sarah has broken Peter’s heart, but she’s really not a bad person; she just has some character flaws, as does Peter. Even Brand’s musician, who had been sleeping with Sarah for some time before she dumped Peter, isn’t completely villainous and has some redeeming qualities. Segel creates characters that are realistic. Let’s face it – when you’ve been dumped, there’s a part of you that still loves the person you lost, and that’s very easy to believe here because all of the characters have such depth. The actors have a lot to work with, resulting in stronger performances and making the whole story a success.

On top of such strong characters, Segel clearly has a good mind for comedy. Here it’s executed without any sort of limitations, from his shocking nudity to free discussion of adult concepts. It’ll be interesting to see what he can do in the future with his plans of a Muppet movie (which would require a very different comedic style than Sarah Marshall) but I have full faith that he can pull it off. He gets that the characters need to be strong and not just an excuse for a punchline – a good lesson I suspect he’s picked up from Apatow.

With a strong story and complex characterizations, Forgetting Sarah Marshall could easily earn the honor of being one of this year’s best comedies, although it’s potential audience may be limited a bit by its raunchy approach. Here’s hoping Segel can continue to craft stories like this in the future, although ironically a little less nudity might give the actor/writer a bit more exposure.