From the beginning in his naked, pathetic, sorrowful breakup with the woman in the film’s title, Peter Bretter, as played by Jason Segel is one of the biggest sad sacks in movie comedy history. When Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell) walks out of his life, he is crestfallen – and many other synonyms. Sure, he tries to go on dates – he meets other girls, but somehow it ends up with Peter crying pathetic tears – as Dan Patrick might put it, drooling the drool of regret into the pillow of remorse. So Peter tries to go to Hawaii to forget about things – perhaps to be able to get out of this rut. But alas, when he arrives, somehow Sarah and her rock star fiance are in the same hotel.
Of course this is all the setup for a formula movie, and in its way, as written by Segel and directed by Nicholas Stoller, Forgetting Sarah Marshall IS a formula comedy. It is also the funniest of the movies to roll out of the Judd Apatow hit factory, and perhaps the best. While the film lacks the sweetness and higher emotional stakes of The 40-Year Old Virgin, it amply compensates with one accomplished comic character and performance after another. The credit has to be shared between Segel’s screenplay, which gives this gallery of players such good dialogue and material to work with, and the actors themselves who bring exactly the right note time after time. Actors over and over again seem to indicate that comedy is at least as hard an art form as performing drama, and this film provides evidence through and through.
As we pick up where we left Peter, yes, Sarah is in the same hotel with her new fiance, the rock star Aldius Snow (Russell Brand). Snow is your archetypal clueless rock star with his tics insecurities and ego – he is like a creature from another planet. Russell Brand of course took this character and made another movie based on him (Get Him to the Greek), and he is very very funny. Obviously the song he sings in the movie is ridiculous – but if it wasn’t for the lyrics, it would be a totally plausible rock song. Indeed, Aldius Snow is a totally plausible rock star – and of course that is why he is so hilarious.
This development does nothing to help Peter to move on from the Sarah relationship. However, the resort is much more than just them. There is the lovely woman behind the desk Rachel (Mila Kunis), and the weirdly chatty bartender, and the spaced out surf instructor (Paul Rudd, of course walking through), and a waiter who when a great star like Aldius Snow is in his presence, does what one suspects many waiters do. All of these characters are given quirks and depth – they all have chances to be funny and quirky. The resort becomes its own microcivilization – Peter soon becomes not just a guest but a friend of these people. All of the actors in these roles bring the exact tone, whether it be luminousness with Kunis, Jonah Hill’s awkward creepiness or even Kristen Bell in the thankless position as the pill (Segel’s screenplay is wise with her and gives her more humanity than just being an evil harridan). Even skype conversations between Peter and his brother (Bill Hader) are written perfectly.
At the head of the class is Segel himself as Peter Bretter. Bretter, as the first paragraph of this tome would indicate, really needs a break. His sad sack act, especially as a counterpoint to all the happier folks around him in Hawaii, is crucial – and Segel is walking a tightrope here. He has to take this character, drive him as far down towards pathetic as possible without compromising the likability for us as an audience to root for him. His Eeyore act is what gives the movie its essence – a place for all these forces of nature to work. He is a terrific straight man here, and as the movie works through its inevitable steps, it never stops being funny and effective, right down to the realization of Peter’s career dreams.