It’s a brave and bold move to make the most self-absorbed, narcissist in a film the one who is also the only one living an authentic life, but that’s part of the charm of FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL. It’s also smart because of the piquant contrast while all the other characters are scurrying around trying to get their lives, romantic and other, in order and reveal themselves to be the real messes of the story, the ones most in need of redemption rather than retribution.
Peter Bretter (Jason Segal, who also scripted) gets the news from his long-time love, Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell) that they are breaking up when she tells him that she loves him dearly. It’s the way she says it to him as he emerges from a shower, and such a shock that he drops his towel and is left a man shattered and naked crying on his leather sofa. Perhaps it was inevitable, she the star of a gritty and often nauseating television crime drama, he the show’s composer. They’ve grown apart, but when Peter flies to Hawaii to nurse his broken heart, they find themselves in very close proximity. At the same hotel, in fact, only she’s with her new boyfriend, the vacuous but sinuously alluring rocker, Aldous Snow (Russell Brand). Peter is wallowing in enough self-pity to cover Mauna Loa, and to make the front-desk clerk, Racheal, (Mila Kunis) take pity on him, offering him sartorial hints, a free suite, and a pity date. Thus begins an emotional round robin, as everyone longs for someone else while gently revealing their own shortcomings to which they are, all too humanly, completely blind.
All, that is, except Aldous, brilliantly realized by Brand, who is so deeply connected to himself that the world around him and its inhabitants are insignificant, and yet he is a man without rancor, without a shred of pettiness or condescension. He’s all about sex and staying sober, in that order. And, to that end, he takes it upon himself to help a newlywed desperate to satisfy his new bride by offering an impromptu lesson on proper coitus using a giant chessboard and its equally massive pieces. He’s also genuinely surprised that Peter doesn’t want to be pals. It’s the character and performance that steal the film, but not for a lack of effort on the part of everyone else, including a giddy set of supporting players from the nervous neophyte on his honeymoon flummoxed by the mystery of “the playground” as he calls it, to the hotel staff that take Peter to their collective bosom, sometimes all too literally, while trying to get him through his crisis, to the step-brother and sister-in-law back in L.A. who are best described as chipper, but emotionally constipated. Segal is no schlub, though his character is, he makes the nice guy who gets dumped and then cries when having sex on the rebound empathetic rather than pathetic. He avoids irony, parody, or edginess, even while performing selections from Peter’s puppet vampire rock opera. In a Bela Lugosi voice. He’s sweet, like the movie, which like him has plenty of heart, but much more in the way of brains than its hero. Bell is refreshingly un-diva-esque in a role that would tempt some to play it that way, and Kunis is perfect, with a heady blend of stunning looks, snappy attitude, and impish humor.
Hawaii as a place to brood offers its own delightful juxtaposition. As Peter is bombarded with weddings, newlyweds, and the soft trade winds, warm sand beaches, and plentiful hot babes that scream sex as Peter snarls and weeps, impervious to it all, with a face that cries out for a graham cracker, a kiss on the forehead, and maybe a nice nap. The hotel in Hawaii as a premise makes for the only shortcoming, which is the suspension of disbelief that a major television star and her rocker boyfriend wouldn’t be staying the poshest suite in the hotel, and that they would be mixing with the hoi polloi at hotel restaurants, luaus, and beachfronts. It’s worth the effort to get past it.
FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL is a tender comedy that isn’t afraid to use the word vagina, or to strip a man naked, literally and figuratively, laying bare the male psyche in all its twisted glory. That’s how it gets away with showing him giving into temptation of the most profane sort, in order to drive home the revelation and the emotional breakthrough. This is a film that makes a new set of rules for romantic comedy while respecting the genre and embracing the lunacy of love, comedy, and the tap-dance hormones play on everyone’s heart.