In a year where moviegoers have been subjected to the likes of “27 Dresses,” “Definitely, Maybe,” “Fool’s Gold” and “Leatherheads,” it’s easy to despair for the state of the romantic comedy. But if Hollywood has taught us anything, it’s that a plucky underdog always surfaces to save the day just when things seem the most hopeless.
Which brings us to the laugh-filled and utterly delightful “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” a return to form for producer Judd Apatow after the missteps of “Walk Hard” and “Drillbit Taylor.” Like Apatow’s “Knocked Up,” “Sarah” deftly mixes raunchy, R-rated comedy with an intelligent, humane look at the foibles of the heart that’s almost like something out of an Eric Rohmer movie. Thanks to a terrific script by Jason Segel, who also stars, and perfect pacing from first-time director Nicholas Stoller, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” is the kind of smart and satisfying movie you’ll watch over and over without feeling guilty.
Segel is hilariously hangdog as Peter Bretter, a composer who, in the film’s opening scene, gets dumped by his titular girlfriend, who stars in a “CSI”-esque TV show. The fact that Segel plays the breakup scene stark naked — with the camera unafraid to give us a full-frontal view — has garnered lots of buzz, but it’s the scene’s emotional nakedness that’s equally compelling. Yes, it’s rare to see a penis in a mainstream movie, but a weeping man is just as rare a sight.
After several misguided attempts to get over Sarah, Peter decides to take a vacation in Hawaii, but Sarah winds up being in the same hotel, accompanied by new boyfriend Aldous (British comedian Russell Brand), an unctuous U.K. pop star. The only thing keeping Peter from bolting is the kindness of the resort’s pretty front-desk clerk Rachel (Mila Kunis).
At this point, one might be tempted to map out the rest of the film’s plot, but it’s to Segel’s credit as a screenwriter that things don’t proceed in a predictable fashion. Peter may feel like a victim, but we learn he wasn’t blameless in the breakup of his relationship with Sarah. Sarah may be selfish, but she’s not entirely without a heart. Aldous may be a jackass, but he’s not without his own compassionate qualities. There’s not a whole lot of plot, per se, in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” but we learn a great deal about the characters — as they, in turn, learn about each other — which keeps things eventful enough.
Add to that a wonderful array of supporting characters — including Bill Hader as Peter’s step-brother and confidante, Jonah Hill as a star-struck waiter, “30 Rock”’s Jack McBrayer as a skittish honeymooner, Paul Rudd as a spaced-out surfing instructor, and Da’Vone McDonald as a compassionate bartender, among many others — and you’ve got a gem of a comedy, chock-full of resonant character moments and, most importantly, laughs that keep coming. Incidentally, the film’s songs — from Aldous’ ridiculous pop hits to Peter’s tunes from his work-in-progress Dracula musical for puppets — are all funnier than anything in “Walk Hard.”
In some ways, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” is like the million-times-better version of last year’s remake of “The Heartbreak Kid,” which also featured a mensch torn between a blonde and a brunette at a tropical resort. But the new film has none of the forced slapstick or the contempt for humanity that dragged down the Ben Stiller vehicle.
The rom-com is alive and well. And any other ones that open this year will have to face being rated opposite “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.”