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If there is one aspect of a relationship that movies depend on most for building plots it has to be the end of them. The break-up has been the motivating factor for almost an uncountable lot of films from comedy to drama, and because most of us have been through one (or many), seem especially endearing (or crushingly painful). That said, many films tend to go for laughs, bending a kind of schadenfreude appeal to our observations of those in agony. We laugh because we know how it feels. Forgetting Sarah Marshall is ostensibly a comedy but it does take on some serious overtones and handles both the break-up and recovery aspects with some surprising authenticity.
Written by its star, Jason Segel based several of the movie’s plot points on his own experiences, including the painfully funny opening break-up where his girlfriend (Kristen Bell) ends it as he stands completely naked in front of her, dangling his soul (and other visible bits) for her to rend. Talk about a metaphorical and literal moment of vulnerability, and rare on-screen male frontal nudity. The film is full of these bracing shots of reality that layer the laughs in honesty, something that ends up separating the movie from many in the genre that play it for visual gags rather than anything with heart. While it certainly has some weak moments, the terrific performance and sharp script more than make this better than expected.
THE STORY: Sarah Marshall (Bell) is a budding television star on a popular CSI-type cop show. For five years, she’s been dating the show’s score composer Peter Bretter (Segel), though for some time, she’s been feeling their paths are heading in different directions. He however, thinks every day is better than the last, and has grown settled in the relationship. After she comes home one day and wrecks that, he’s left on his own, depressed and questioning the meaning of life. And the cereal tub.
He ends up taking a trip to Hawaii to try and get her off his mind, but naturally, she is already booked at the expensive hotel with her new boyfriend, Aldous Snow (Russell Brand), a ridiculously pop singer with a party-boy reputation. Fortunately, Peter meets hotel concierge Rachel (Mila Kunis), who, seeing his situation, sets him up in the resort’s best suite and recognizing he needs some companionship, befriends him, helping him cope and recover. You can guess what happens next. Well, maybe you can’t. Unless you had a large bald Hawaiian man and a musical about an undead lonely vampire on your list.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: While both Kunis and Bell had television roles that gave them some exposure, Forgetting Sarah Marshall pretty much launched their careers on film, with both women stealing the show from Segel, who is admittedly very good as well.
That said, keep your eye out for the supporting characters, who, at the time, were unknowns, but are anything but now, including Jack McBrayer as a newlywed with some first-time sexual issues and Jonah Hill as a pot-dealing part-time hotel waiter with a garage band demo he desperately wants in Snow’s hands. Both have some funny moments, as do SNL veterans Bill Hader as Peter’s step-brother and a cameo by Kristen Wiig as a yoga instructor with a bit of lust for Aldous as well.
A GREAT MOMENT: In that list of supporting actors is also Paul Rudd, who was already fairly well-known by Sarah Marshall and has a minor role here but has easily one of the funniest moments in the film as a surfing instructor with some seemingly benign advice that is actually pretty profound in how Peter ought to handle his life. Don’t do anything.
But one that is an even better hidden gem is a moment that seems initially insignificant but in fact is anything but when Peter and Rachel go out on a quasi-date, first at a beach party and then a jazz bar where she manages to get Peter on stage after he tells her he’s working on a rock-opera about Dracula. Yes, Dracula.
After he performs a somber piece about how the famous vampire wants only to die, using a hilarious Dracula-esque voice, the bar stares sunned yet Rachel erupts with laughter. The key here is that a) she gets it better than even Peter does, and b) as we learn a bit later, she gets it even better than Sarah did. It changes the direction Peter takes in what do with his life is subtle ways, revealing that Rachel is far more important that she seems. But we already knew that. Just look at her.
THE TALLY: A “comedy with heart” is about as cliché a description as a “cop on the edge” but sometimes it’s about as true as it gets. Segel proves himself a great lead, something he’s grown into even more so in the decade since. While its arc might be a bit predictable, even if many parts around it aren’t, the script is very funny (often improvised) and the respectful tone it takes while it goes for laughs, makes Forgetting Sarah Marshall, well … unforgettable.