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Break-ups of the rich and famous in Forgetting Sarah Marshall

by Glen Baity

If you pass through Judd Apatow’s orbit, chances are you’ve got a star-making turn in your future.

Take Jason Segel, the latest member of the Apatow mafia to get his button: Like Jonah Hill and Seth Rogen before him, he spent a few years in the background as the stoner friend before landing in his first starring feature, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which he also wrote. It’s a film firmly in the style of this group of friends – that is to say, a story about a funny, lazy dude in his twenties overloaded with girl troubles.

But let’s not be too hard on the guy: You’d be distraught if your ex-girlfriend was 1) extremely famous and 2) Veronica Mars. The titular Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell) is the star of a hilariously awful “CSI” knockoff (bonus points: it co-stars Stephen Baldwin). Peter (Segel), her boyfriend, composes the show’s ominous music, lives in his sweatpants and eats Froot Loops by the mixing-bowl load.

He’s happy as can be, but the perils of dating a pretty blond celebrity become clear when Sarah ditches Peter for libertine rocker Aldous Snow (Russell Brand), he of ridiculous tattoos and tantric expertise.

After a few tragic one-night stands (which, for Peter, end in post-coital weeping) fail to soothe the burn, the damaged slob decides he needs a change of scenery. He heads to Hawaii, haven for honeymooners and celebrity couples like Sarah and her greasy new boyfriend. When Peter, Sarah and Aldous check into the same resort, Peter refuses to leave, thus dooming himself to a week full of awkward social encounters, sexual frustration and emotional torture.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall feels almost like a Shakespearean comedy, with its group of young lovers at leisure, free to do nothing but lounge around and catch glimpses of one another in compromising situations. Also, its lead characters spend the majority of the film at each other’s throats, but the hostility here is drowned in coconut rum, as first-time director Nicholas Stoller establishes an easy-going pace from the moment Peter steps off the plane. Though aimlessness is not a quality most films can turn into an asset, it’s actually quite fun sulking around paradise with Peter. He seems like a good guy, like all Apatow’s loser heroes, someone you could hang out with despite his addiction to misery.

Like Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin before it, though, the supporting cast lifts Marshall from good to excellent. Peter falls into the understanding arms of front desk girl Rachel (Mila Kunis), iChats with stepbrother Brian (Bill Hader), and hangs out with the resort’s employees and guests, each of them entertaining in their own way, each with a more fully-realized character than you’d find in most other romantic comedies.

The film, however, has its missteps. Most of these Apatow comedies don’t quite know when to quit, and in that tradition Forgetting Sarah Marshall feels about 15 minutes too long (a problem that will almost certainly be exacerbated by the inevitable ‘unrated and extended’ DVD). And while I praise the film’s meandering nature, as it heads slowly for its conclusion it can seem like it’s going in circles.

But that’s a pretty small complaint. For the most part, the film is well written and a pleasure to watch. The jokes are funny (I especially love the running gag about Peter’s rock opera based on Dracula) and Segel has a likeable screen presence. The fact that he’s never really been in the spotlight before makes him believable as a nobody going through a break-up with someone very famous. If his career goes as it should, it’s a role he won’t be able to play again.

To comment on this article, e-mail Glen Baity at glen.baity@gmail.com.

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