April 21, 2008

Unforgettable

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The Judd Apatow machine strikes again. And you know what? The formula still works.
Take a relatively unknown but insanely gifted comedic actor (most likely a star of Apatow’s nearly-universally adored late-’90s TV series Freaks and Geeks), place him in a common-yet-ridiculous romantic debacle (losing virginity at middle age, fathering a child with a far-better-looking better-half, etc.), provide said character with relentlessly obscene and profane conversations to engage in with a motley crew of dorky (and possibly demented) cohorts and throw in endless references to popular culture in between sight gags and fluid jokes. Does it work? Almost every time.
Although Apatow is only credited as a producer, his trademark stylistic fingerprints still coat Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Director Nicholas Stoller competently helms, and, just as Seth Rogen both performed in and co-wrote Superbad last year, this movie’s screenplay comes from the imagination of its own star, Jason Segel.
Segel has constructed a comedy centered on a well-worn romantic cliché: A rivalry with the ex’s new boyfriend. However, cliché aside, it is the manner in which Segel plays the main character, Peter Bretter that elevates the movie to new levels of hilarity. Peter was just dumped by his actress girlfriend, Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell of TV’s Veronica Mars), for the new-age rocker Aldous Snow (British comedian Russell Brand). After attempting to console himself through several unsuccessful one-night stands, Peter heads off to Hawaii in the hopes that some time in the sun and surf will assuage his suffering. Alas, who else does he run into in Hawaii other than … Sarah Marshall herself. A series of awkward escapades ensues, including gut-busting meetings with wacky tourists and islanders (all endlessly inventive Apatow creations, played by familiar faces from his other movies), and a newfound love interest in the gorgeous hotel concierge, Rachel (Mila Kunis of TV’s That 70s Show).
I seriously adored this movie — enough to watch it twice; the two separate movie theater audiences both clapped and applauded throughout. Every scene was simultaneously awkward and endearing, brilliantly funny and instantly quotable. There were times when the movie felt a little long, but it never dragged out; I wanted every scene to last forever. I constantly waited for scenes to overstay their welcome, for jokes to turn stale or fall flat. The lull never came. Every new scene fired a shot to the gut and funny bone simultaneously. (An early scene involving a parody music video is a real standout, and the movie only climbs uphill from there.)
What is most remarkable is Apatow and Co.’s, dedication to creating fully realized, three-dimensional characters. Everyone in FSM has a back-story and motivations, or at least an understandable lack thereof — which serves as character development anyway. A separate (and likely successful) picture could be constructed around anyone in the supporting cast, from sun-fried stoner, Chuck, to the horny-yet-religious newlyweds, Darald and Wyoma, to sea-turtle obsessed bartender Dwayne. No roles are wasted in this film.
And the antagonists are three-dimentional as well. It would be easy to paint Aldous as the consummately evil love interest, but his character earns our sympathy because he is honest about his dishonesty. He appears to project the thin veneer of a faux-rebellious hippie rock star, but his carefree approach to life might actually be genuine, and the audience can empathize because he means well. Sarah, likewise, could have been the entirely selfish bitch a lesser movie would have made her out to be just to advance the plot. Pay attention, however, to the scene between her and Peter as Aldous lies unconscious (the end result of one of the movie’s long-awaited and supremely hilarious scenes). She has reasons for acting the way she does and making the decisions she has made; we almost feel sorry for her. We hate her as we would any ex guilty of the same things, but after an emotional, impassioned speech, we see ourselves in her position. What would we do?
Also, thanks to FSM, crying in the movies has been legitimized once more. Since watching nearly every character in Spiderman 3 bawl his/her eyes out over and over again last summer, I have sworn off cinematic crocodile tears. However, in FSM, the power of tears returns in full force — they are a frequent source of comedy, as the men of the film weep openly, uproariously and without abandon. Likewise, the female characters hold back tears in the most strikingly dramatic moments, donning war faces and communicating much more than fake, empty words ever could.
Wait, what’s with all the emotional crap? This supposed to be a raunchy comedy, right?
Yes. But, just as The 40-Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Superbad subtly baked themes of alienation, friendship and discovering one’s true identity into a gross-out comedy crust, FSM presents the naked truth about the pain of breakups and rebounds in the same packaging. What makes the humor so hilarious and affecting is that even though the characters’ situations might be slightly off-kilter — I personally can’t relate to accidentally running into a TV-star ex-girlfriend and her rock star rebound in a luxury hotel in Hawaii — their interactions and emotions are 100-percent genuine, believable and based in real life. We laugh, not because of the absurdity presented onscreen (so much full frontal! *sigh*), but because the absurdity mimics the comic darkness in our own lives. Raunchy comedy as existential high art? You all better recognize.