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Arts & Culture

Forgetting Sarah Marshall

"I personally love romantic comedies," Stoller confesses, "So I would just look at it generally as a romantic comedy but from the male perspective."

Jason Segel plays Peter, a man coping badly with his break up to the titular Sarah Marshall ( Veronica Mars' Kristen Bell). He tries to console himself in Hawaii but his ex turns up at the hotel with a new, more successful rock star boyfriend (Brit Russell Brand nearly stealing the show). Rachel ( That 70's Show's Mila Kunis) is a hotel hostess who tries to console Peter but with mixed results. She suffered a bad break up two years earlier and tries to impart some wisdom from that experience. But Peter's emotions are still too raw. Stoller says Segel was great at keeping Peter always on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Mila Kunis and Jason Segel in Forgetting Sarah Marshall (Universal)


Stoller says, "Jason [who also wrote the script] and I bonded early on over our shared love of grown men crying. We think that's the funniest thing ever. I said to someone we've brought back the grown man crying but then I realized we hadn't brought it back, it never existed in cinema, the grown man crying really, really hard and pathetically."

Advertised as a "romantic disaster," Forgetting Sarah Marshall is about misery of being dumped and then shifting through the emotional wreckage. Stoller says he'd like people to walk into the theater expecting a romantic comedy and walk out having found it a little more complicated. The film's produced by the prolific Judd Apatow, who achieved precisely that kind of romantic comedy with Knocked Up last summer. Both Stoller and Segel worked for Apatow on his TV show Undeclared . They have not yet surpassed their mentor but they are working in a similar comic vein. Stoller says working on a TV show was a good training ground for creative collaboration.

"We're all very collaborative," Stoller says, "There's no one trying to steal the spotlight. We all understand that the funniest stuff is often spread evenly among everyone so there's not just one person doing all the jokes. There's also a fair amount of improv. But there's also a process from TV that we all like which is basically to hammer at stuff so there's a joke -- well most romantic comedies have a joke every four or five minutes but if you watch TV shows whether it's The Office or 30 Rock, there's a joke every 30 seconds and we try to do that."

The laughs come even faster than that during scenes depicting Marshall's TV show, which is a CSI rip off. Billy Baldwin has a cameo as Marshall's co-star who always removes his sunglasses to state the obvious. Makes sure to stay through the end credits to catch a fake TV commercial for Marshall's new series.

But what makes the comedy in Sarah Marshall a cut above is that it's not just sitcom gags. It's comedy that comes from character and from characters we like. Even Sarah's new rock star boyfriend -played to wicked perfection played by Russell Brand - turns out to be likable despite being consumed with himself. Stoller says he's like to pretend that he discovered Brand but the British actor is a star back in England with a show of his own. But in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Brand's Aldous Snow is over the top in his rock star sexiness, he's narcissistic, and amazingly shallow yet he's also thoroughly relaxed and content with himself, surprisingly honest, and oddly appealing. Even Peter finds himself warming up to him.


Kristen Bell and the scene-stealing Russell Brand (Universal)

The lack of a real "villain" or "bad guy" is a key component of what I like to call pot comedies. Harold and Kumar and Cheech and Chong are obvious pot comedies, but Sarah Marshall, Knocked Up, Garden State, Shaun of the Dead - they are all pot comedies because there's a lack of mean spiritedness running through them. Everyone in these films has flaws but everyone also has some kind of redeeming factor as well, and ultimately the films refrain from judging their characters preferring to take the pot head attitude of live and let live, hey that's cool attitude. (In contrast, Borat is not a pot comedy.)

When I mention this category of comedy to Stoller notes, "The additional thing about pot comedies is everyone in them is fat from the munchies. I think that's part of the truth thing. In Sarah Marshall it would have been very easy to paint her, Kristen Bell's character as the bitch and that's just not interesting. It would have resulted in not as good a movie and less laughs. It would have been like. & 'I know what that person is,' versus watching the movie and having anyone who's been through a break up realizing that everyone's at fault. So it's important that you give all the characters three dimensions."

That means that we see Sarah as both a stuck up celebrity who uses Peter to carry her purse at parties and events, and as someone who really did try to make her relationship with him work. At one point, after the break up, she confides her insecurities about her work to Peter and Bell lets us see Sarah as vulnerable too.

"We strive for heart at the center," says Stoller, "and that's what ends up making people laugh more. We wanted Kristen Bell to start out as if she's going to be a parody of the dumb Hollywood actress but over the course of the movie you realize that she's just a complicated messed up person like anyone else."

Stoller and Segel also present us with a story where the romantic relationships take a little time to work out. Everyone makes mistakes and it can take a while to either learn from those missteps or find the proper way to apologize. The film resolves all these relationships is a highly satisfying manner, although it takes a little more time that it probably should have to reach its final act. Some tightening would have helped make this a better comedy.

Yes they are that funny... (Universal)

The cast is appealing. Bell is surprisingly good, giving Sarah more dimension that you'd expect. Another surprise is Kunis who was frequently grating on the TV show That 70's Show. Here, she comes across as the most mature and levelheaded of all the characters. The two women also present a nice contrast: the perky Bell and the darkly attractive Kunis. I'll mention Brand again because he probably scores more laughs than anyone else; he's like some hip rock and roll Jesus who's quite matter of fact about his ability to walk on water.

Paul Rudd, who also shined in Knocked Up , plays a surf instructor of sorts who can never remember anyone's name. Stoller notes that "what's confusing to people is Paul looks like a leading man but he really is an incredible character actor. I mean he's a great leading man too but he really is a fantastic character actor." Segel is not exactly star material and he has some difficulty carrying so much of the film. But he's got a genuine sweetness and sensitivity. He also doesn't mind being the butt of a few jokes. He also doesn't mind stripping down for the film.

The break up that starts the film is likely to start some buzz since it involves full frontal nudity - on the part of the guy. Jason Segel based this on his own break up and decided he needed to "show his unit" as part of the scene.

"Jason just showed up and refused to put clothes on that day," says Stoller, "And it worked because he's just in a very vulnerable state so it doesn't feel extraneous. And it actually did happen like that to him so it feels like you could not be more vulnerable then when you're naked. But I didn't know what the rules were. It turns out that the MPAA rule is that the male member can't be above 90 degrees. Anywhere above that it becomes NC-17. But below it is fine. We had a protractor on the set."

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (rated R sexual content, language and some graphic nudity) stays below the 90-degree mark but raises the bar for romantic comedy. Rather than being the perfect first date movie, it serves up the perfect break up film. You might just laugh till you cry... or cry until you laugh if you're the one being dumped.

Companion viewing: Knocked Up, Freaks and Geeks (TV series), The Heartbreak Kid (the 1972 version for the scene where Charles Grodin breaks up with Jeannie Berlin), Closer, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind