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'Forgetting Sarah Marshall': Guy Loses Girl, Winningly

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By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 18, 2008

As we find ourselves watching yet another male-centric romantic comedy from Judd Apatow -- he of "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up" -- we ask ourselves: What more is there to dredge from the well of man's arrested development?

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Plenty.

"Forgetting Sarah Marshall," which Apatow produced and which clearly bears his hapless dude-specific sense of humor, is here to tell us that mankind's cluelessness in matters of life and love is a bottomless reservoir. And we can take a sort of contemplative delight -- on a Jungian level -- in the many ways that maturity-challenged behavior can amuse us. (The alternative is to cry, of course, but who wants soggy popcorn?) Lead performer Jason Segel is Peter, a curly-haired bear cub who puts a lovable face on that subject as he stumbles through a relationship breakup amid frontal nudity gags and jokes about STDs.

While "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up" remain bigger movies for the social topics (sex issues and unplanned pregnancy) they conjure, the new movie is every bit as enjoyable. As with most of the male characters in Apatow's movies -- from Steve Carell's sexually squeamish Andy Stitzer in "Virgin" to the sexually obsessed teens in "Superbad" -- vulnerability is Peter's comedic saving grace. Which explains why we're already guffawing at the opening image of Peter standing naked in front of the mirror, flexing his pecs. He does it because he can. He's a proud little child in his early 20s.

"Good for you, dude," he says to himself, as his chest muscles flicker in a sort of performing seal alternation. "Good for you."

Yes, he lacks a certain adult microchip. But he's hard-wired to a thudding bass drum of a heart. And that endearing quality becomes the comedy's redemptive thread, as he retreats to Hawaii, trying to forget about Sarah (Kristen Bell), the girlfriend who left him for an English rock star named Aldous (Russell Brand). No sooner has Peter checked into the hotel than he discovers Sarah's booked there, too -- with Aldous.

Awkward.

The coincidence isn't actually as absurd as it sounds; Hawaii was Sarah and Peter's dream destination. But the story line carries that odor of rom-com predictability -- yes, Peter meets another woman (Mila Kunis) who might just be The One. Still, its semi-improvisational atmosphere is the real pleasure. Between those groaningly familiar plotlines, first-time director Nicholas Stoller and Segel, who also scripted, open up a lot of space for wild-card serendipity, giving us the delicious sense that anything could happen.

Of course, anything does. Like the scene in which Sarah drops in to tell Peter the romance is over. Stunned, Peter drops his towel -- the only thing he's wearing. And as he weeps, bows his head and bends over in anguish, the audience hoots with eye-shielding horror, laughing at the disconnect between Peter's emotional pain and his comedic lack of dignity.

Peter's agony and suffering as he keeps bumping into the happy, beautiful new couple is the main motif. But the joy of "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" is how that theme ripples out into so many hilarious subplots, featuring a Who's Who of Apatow movie veterans: Paul Rudd as a surfing instructor who calls people by their "Hawaiian names," Jonah Hill as a hotel waiter with a stalkerish crush on Aldous, and Bill Hader as Peter's overly wound-up best buddy.

The showstopper, however, is Brand, a British stand-up comedian whose self-absorbed, post-Byronic rocker could easily have stumbled off the set of "This Is Spinal Tap." As Aldous, his inability to filter details of his womanizing or sexual prowess tortures Peter with every utterance or diffident sweep of the head.

Apatow's specialty has always been malius dumbius, the male of the species, a gender focus that has drawn criticism for its portrayal of women as humor-impaired nags and drags. But though once again the female characters in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" only amount to walking-talking prizes to be loved, chased or fought over, Bell and Kunis bring feisty, funny dimension to their roles. And there is one tense-dialogue scene between the two -- when the subtext is territorial possession of Peter -- that's one of the movie's most sensitively written moments.

These characters are obviously exaggerations, but at least those exaggerations spring directly from reality, as opposed to from Hollywood's rom-com stockroom of jocks, dweebs and haughty-hotties. The film's improvisational loosey-gooseyness, as with all Apatow movies, amounts to a cathartic bonus: an acknowledgment that real life is also full of stupid, embarrassing and klutzy moments. And hopefully, we can laugh at those, too, with philosophical satisfaction.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (110 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for nudity, profanity, slapstick violence and sexual content.


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