Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Que Sarah Sarah

And now, a movie review from the present. Here's a look at the new Judd Apatow produced comedy ...

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (d. Nicholas Stoller)

Peter Bretter composes music for a television program called "Crime Scene: Scene of the Crime," a show not a million miles away from a certain Miami-based detective romp currently glutting our airwaves. But, he complains, it's not really music at all; there's no tune, no melody. All the producers of the show ever want are long, drawn-out, ominous notes to make everything seem terribly tragic and important. He is pimping his gift for music to sell inane drivel.

And in its way, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is a similar complaint directed at the run-of-the-mill romcoms that too often stuff the furthest reaches of our multiplexes. They are frequently simulations of romance rather than the real thing. Real romance is a difficult, one-step-forward-two-steps-back proposition with all manner of pitfalls and hazards; such is the nature of messy, difficult humanity. But you'd never know it from the average romcoms. For all their attractive casts and exotic settings, they only pretend at the wild, passionate, sometimes destructive emotions that make up actual love. They are the cinematic equivalent of Peter's "Crime Scene" incidental music; droning with the appearance of an emotion without ever really singing.

Godard once said that the best way to criticize a movie is to make another movie, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall is the sharpest piece of film criticism we're likely to see this year (this fine blog notwithstanding).

All the standard tropes are in place from any number of other movies: the obsessed schlub of a lead, the attractive girl who dumps him, the other attractive girl who understands him better, the exotic tropical setting (Hawaii, here), the secondary cast of colorful locals, the raunchy gags. In lesser hands, this could have devolved into the latest Rob Schneider Lord-take-my-eyes celluloid turd.

But it most emphatically does not.

With a script by lead Jason Segel from "How I Met Your Mother," and back aways, from Apatow's immortal "Freaks and Geeks," and crisp direction from Nicholas Stoller, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is a hilarious, sharp farce, as well as an incisive look at that literally crazy little thing called love.

Kristen Bell (Veronica!) plays the titular character -- and I love writing the word "titular" because it sounds dirty -- the lead actress on "Crime Scene," who opens the film by dumping Segel's Peter. She has been carrying on for a year with the lead singer of emo-pop outfit Infant Sorrow, Aldous Snow (great name and a gem of a performance by Russell Brand). Snow is the musician that Sarah probably thought Peter would be; popular, successful. But Peter is content to sit in their apartment in sweat pants all day, eating mammoth bowls of cereal and occasionally coughing up some of those ominous notes for Sarah's program.

When Sarah runs off with Aldous for an extended vacation, Peter decides he needs to get away too. But the only place he can think of to go is the same Hawaiian resort that his ex kept talking about; so he ends up a few hotel-room doors down, stuck watching as Sarah and Aldous cavort through the sand and waves, looking fabulous and famous together.

There are echoes throughout of some of the best romantic comedies from a generation ago, as the film explicitly references Albert Brooks's Modern Romance and Steve Martin's The Lonely Guy. As with each of those films, the prospect of trying to connect with someone becomes vastly preferable only when compared to the prospect of being alone.

Peter's "someone" here might be Sarah herself, who becomes increasingly disenchanted with Aldous's lothario ways as the vacation wears on; or it might be Rachel (Mila Kunis from "That 70s Show"), the pleasant woman at the front desk who encourages Peter to recommit to his musical talent.

And along the way, there are big laughs, many supplied by the Apatow stock company populating the film's periphery, including Paul Rudd as a stoner surfing instructor and Jonah Hill as a waiter with a serious man-crush on Aldous.

We are not likely to get a funnier or more empathetic movie this year. Forgetting Sarah Marshall is the real thing.

4 stars.

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