The two latest movies to come off the Judd Apatow assembly line have finally recognized a comic truth long known to women everywhere: The unerect human penis is inherently funny. The biggest laughs in Walk Hard, the Apatow-produced mock biopic that died an undeservedly quick death at the box office last year, involved John C. Reilly’s debauched country singer phoning his wife from his hotel room as his nude bandmates strolled in and out of the frame, flaccid wangers a-wavin’. Apatow’s latest production, Forgetting Sarah Marshall (Universal), directed by first-timer Nick Stoller, opens and closes with scenes that have full-length shots of the film’s writer and star, Jason Segel, looking beseechingly into the camera as his wookerbill dangles wanly.
Baring the lead actor’s junk in the first five minutes isn’t the only way in which Forgetting Sarah Marshall exposes its manhood. Segel’s character, Peter Bretter, is the most emotionally naked Apatovian hero yet. Peter doesn’t bother to mask his insecurity with raunchy bravado, like Seth Rogen in Knocked Up or the foulmouthed seniors of Superbad. From the moment he’s dumped by his TV-star girlfriend, Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell), his coping device consists mainly of frequent and copious weeping. The crying, like the nudity, is funny in itself—not because the audience is insensitive to Peter’s suffering but because his baby-bird vulnerability so thoroughly subverts our expectations of how a male romantic lead should behave.
After a few days of wallowing in self-pity and eating Froot Loops by the mixing bowl—the guy equivalent of ice cream straight from the carton—Peter decides to treat himself to a luxury vacation in Hawaii. But the resort he picks is a favorite of Sarah’s as well, and no sooner has Peter checked in than he finds himself face-to-face with his ex and her new boyfriend, the sanctimonious British rocker Aldous Snow (Russell Brand).
The setup is familiar, but where Segel’s script takes things isn’t. For the next hour or so, Peter just sort of hangs around the Turtle Bay resort, becoming a favorite of the hotel staff as he’s tormented by the presence of the canoodling lovers. A gorgeous desk clerk, Rachel (Mila Kunis), lets him stay in a $6,000-a-night suite for free. A spaced-out surf instructor (Paul Rudd) offers Peter some useless Zen advice (“Do less!”), while a needy maitre’d (Jonah Hill) takes pity on his single-guy status (“Man, if I were you, I’d be so depressed.”). As Peter begins to emerge from his funk—on a date with Rachel, he shyly confesses his dream of writing a “rock opera about Dracula, with puppets”—his nemeses, the perfidious Sarah and the insufferable Aldous, start to seem less evil.
This middle section is a little loose and unstructured—scene by scene, it’s nowhere near as gag-rich as, say, Knocked Up—but that very looseness allows for a level of character development that’s unusual in a movie of this type. Even the female characters have personality traits beyond glossy hair and impossibly perfect bodies (of course, this being a Hollywood romantic comedy, they’re contractually required to have those, too). Kunis’ Rachel is a college dropout with a chip on her shoulder and a tomboyish sense of humor. Sarah’s alpha girl mask slips just often enough to show us what Peter liked about her in the first place. And thanks largely to the on-set improvisation of British comic Russell Brand, the initially clichéd Aldous Snow becomes one of the movie’s chief delights. He’s a tribally tattooed free-love advocate who blathers about sobriety, but he’s also a regular bloke who’s not above extending his rival a genuine compliment or demonstrating his renowned sex moves on an outsize chess set.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall continues the post-Wedding Crashers trend of pushing comedies to the limits of the R rating, with lots of explicit dialogue and a few exposed boobs to go with that dangling member. But it avoids the gross-out one-upmanship of filth for filth’s sake. The nude breakup scene that begins the movie is funny but also painfully intimate, like the moment in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts when Julianne Moore confesses to a long-ago adulterous affair while naked from the waist down. A late scene in which Sarah and Peter have a miserably failed go at relapse sex is a good example of raunchiness that serves a narrative purpose. Other scenes, like the extended “pearl necklace” gag that’s been so heavily peddled in trailers, are just dirty for the laugh-getting hell of it, and that’s OK too.
Ultimately, this movie sets itself apart from other recent Apatow releases because of the strong script and central performance from Jason Segel, whose budding career rests on the twin foundations of earnestness and self-humiliation. As Nick on the cult TV series Freaks and Geeks, he memorably, and unsuccessfully, courted Linda Cardellini with an a cappella serenade of Styx’s “Lady,” and just this week, his character on the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother broke down in tears in front of his boss. Even Segel’s physique is refreshing. Neither a washboard-stomached hunk nor a joshing fat guy, he’s the first leading man in recent memory who’s actually built like most men I know. Like its hero, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is a little soft around the middle, but all the more loveable for that.