Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008)

Dir. Nicholas Stoller. Starring Jason Segel, Kristen Bell, Russell Brand

I watched Forgetting Sarah Marshall for the third time recently. I first saw it maybe a year after it came out. I watched it again in college, remembering how much fun I had when I saw it as a high school senior, and then wondered what, exactly, had been fun about the experience? As is usually the case, I landed somewhere in between this time out.

It seems like it’s been a long time since 2008. In 2008, How I Met Your Mother was creating all of its inside jokes rather than joylessly recycling them. Veronica Mars and That ’70s Show had not ended so long ago. “I Kissed a Girl” was the titillating debut single du jour, and no one imagined that the twenty-four year-old sexpot who shouted that song would marry the weird English guy from Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Watching Forgetting Sarah Marshall in 2015 is a completely different experience than it was back then: you tend to see The Muppets and Frozen and a surprisingly lucid rabble-rouser. The resulting change is a pleasing shift in star images; instead of a sitcom “remember that time people, hyuk hyuk, had…intercourse?!” wink-wink, we’re approached with significantly more twee but significantly more relatable individuals.

The film itself, like the rest of the concurrent Judd Apatow productions that it gets tossed into the stew with – Knocked Up, Superbad, Pineapple Express, Drillbit Taylor, etc. – focuses on a character who I think we’re supposed to be able to relate to, but we really hope we can’t relate to. Perhaps we are supposed to be able to relate to him nearer to the end of the movie, when he has, after many self-absorbed hijinks, managed to become a better person with a cleaner outlook on himself and what his purpose is. (Bridesmaids is the exception to this rule, because herself.) I suppose what I tend not to like about these movies is that it takes the gas station guys from Say Anything and pretends for ninety minutes that they have a zen wisdom about women rather than an utter inadequacy.

It is easier, though, to find things to like about Peter (Segel) than it is to find something to like about Jonah Hill in Superbad or Seth Rogen in Knocked Up. Peter is a romantic, I guess, but he’s also ruled by routine. That routine is to sit around in his pajamas, eat “the freshest cereal” in massive quantities, do a little work for Crime Scene: Scene of the Crime, and generally take his famous, pretty girlfriend, Sarah Marshall (Bell) for granted. The reason why Peter is living off the fatta the lan’ is his job as the composer for CS: SotC; it appears to pay, and of course Sarah is bringing in a steady paycheck as its star, but the job itself is killing him. His dream is to write and star in a rock opera about Dracula with puppets – sort of a low-stakes Twilight meets Avenue Q property. The output in doing his own work is nowhere near as steady as his job work output is, but nothing could be more steady than how quickly he’s going nowhere. He’s not a bad guy: he is nice enough, and has some sense of humor, but he’s also malingering.

Sarah is painted as a shrew pretty quickly: she leaves Peter’s stability (such as it is, anyway), for the bizarre happenings of Aldous Snow (Brand). We find out that she and Aldous have been sleeping together for past year and change. (Bing!) She has bad taste in menswear, but that doesn’t stop her from manipulating her guys into wearing said ugly things. (Bing!) She hears Peter having sex with a girl she’s afraid is prettier than her in the next room and has a sexnoise competition through the walls. (Bing!) She is incapable of telling someone the truth immediately, pretending that she is, in Peter’s words, “on The View.” (Bing!) She won’t shut up when she’s trying to perform oral sex on the guy she dumped and is now trying to get back so she won’t be alone. (Bing!)

The movie gives her a single moment of humanity: when she tells Peter that she read books and attended seminars and talked to psychiatrists to do anything she could to snap him out of his own navel-gazing. That’s when you realize that Peter is the guy you dated in college, but you never could have spent the rest of your life with, because it’s hard enough to be a parent to an actual child. (See under Apatow-produced movies, all of them). It’s a useful segment, but it’s also used to segue into one of the movie’s most memorable passages, ending with Peter doing his best Gandalf impression. Even her moments of humanity are subsumed into Peter mugging for a laugh.

Aldous is in many ways more likeable than Sarah. He seems to be more cluelessly zany than vindictive; he goes out of his way to be nice to Peter, even telling him that his Dracula musical sounds like a “gothic Neil Diamond,” which is, as Peter tells us, exactly what he was going for. To him, sex is not made as an early step towards long-term intimacy, but rather a way to shake hands with someone he feels a connection to. For this, Aldous is lampooned by just about all parties, although there’s no reason to believe that he has taken advantage of anyone or raped someone.

The movie is at its best when the characters are either more relatable (as nerdy and maladroit as Bill Hader is, he seems like a decent guy with a functioning marriage) or totally unrelatable (Paul Rudd’s joyous, “YOU SOUND LIKE YOU’RE FROM LONDON!” may well be the apex of his career). Out of the four principals, Aldous is the only one I found myself rooting for this time around, mostly because he combines those elements. Peter’s existence feels preachy, while Sarah’s feels needlessly aggressive; it’s like the people writing it couldn’t convince themselves that Sarah was the bad guy unless she became needlessly vapid and small. Rachel is a non-entity; if I were a woman, I would rather be Sarah than Rachel, because at least Sarah might still exist when a needy man isn’t in the room. Aldous, as ridiculous as he is, also seems to have a bare awareness of his goofiness; what he lacks in awareness he makes up in earnestness.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall is a deeply conservative movie. There’s a lot of sex sans wedlock, and some people say filthy words, and Jason Segel doesn’t wear clothes sometimes, and they make fun of the conservative Christian couple who are just married and aren’t acclimating to sex well. None of these move the film left. The central conceit of the picture is that love and sex are meant to be focused on a single person, like a laserbeam, and to be just as focused on that person until you come up with some reason why s/he isn’t your Soul Mate. People who do anything besides “make love,” maybe the silliest of euphemisms, are shamed in the film’s perspective. In this way, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is a comedy of manners, except for the fact that the best of those find ways to show how foolish or goofy or antiquated those manners are; Forgetting Sarah Marshall thinks that a comedy of manners ought to roll around in those manners in an attempt to catch their scent.

Perhaps the best example of this comes when Peter notices a picture of his new crush, Rachel (Mila Kunis, playing Natalie Portman in Garden State without the helmet), above the urinal in a bar. Rachel is topless in the photo. Later, in the film, after Rachel has done the ladylike thing and broken up with Peter because he engaged in some vague intercourse with Sarah, Peter does the chivalrous thing. Despite knowing he’ll get beaten up by the bar’s proprietor – and he does, more or less – he takes the picture of Rachel off the wall and gives it to her. (It is worth noting – and perhaps this is a Kunis acting deficiency, I have no idea – that Rachel seemed fairly apathetic anymore about the picture.) Beaten and bruised, he wordlessly stares her down and walks away. The movie plays this with total seriousness. The next time someone says that chivalry is dead, tell them about this scene. If that’s all that chivalry is anymore, then maybe it’s for the best.

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