One of the more pleasant surprises of last spring was the romantic comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Though much of the marketing focused on Judd Apatow--the movie’s tagline was “From the guys who brought you The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up”--a producer credit is hardly a guarantee of success. Portending ill was a debut director, a debut screenwriter who had also finagled himself into the lead role, and a cast of TV actors who hadn’t shown any ability to carry a film. Besides, it’s hard to make a movie that’s both funny and romantic.
But Forgetting Sarah Marshall is able to pull off that winning double. Jason Segel, the aforementioned screenwriter/actor, is sweet and comical as a TV music composer trying to get over being dumped by his famous girlfriend (Kristen Bell). In his attempt to get away from it all, he lands at the very resort where his ex and her new boyfriend (the hilarious British comic Russell Brand) are staying. As in all great screwball comedies, the random and uncomfortable ways characters bump into each other provide much of the humor.
This being an R-rated comedy, sex and its foibles provide the rest. Nudity abounds. Well, male nudity at least, which is a much richer vein for laughs. But the actors also play off each other well. Mila Kunis (best known for her role in That ‘70s Show) is particularly winning as the new girl who may or may not be right for our hero.
The film also earns its emotional payoff. It doesn’t demonize the ex (Kristen Bell is too cute for it to work, anyway) or the new boyfriend, but it makes clear who we’re rooting for. And then it swings the audience back and forth, so that we’re not quite sure what path we’re on. Romantic comedies aren’t designed to surprise you with their endings (was there ever a doubt who Cary Grant was going home with?); their charm relies on how we get to that foreordained conclusion. Forgetting Sarah Marshall does it with laughs, a dash of intelligence, and a strong, likable cast.