Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008) **1/2*

Rated: R
Runtime: 1hr 52min
Director: Nicholas Stoller
Stars: Jason Segel, Kristen Bell, Mila Kunis
Genre: Comedy
Language: English

Handling a breakup without a breakdown — with an amusing script, a capable cast, and a sunny outlook

In a Nutshell

Plot

Straight as an Arrow
Twisty

Sound Quality

Easy to Hear
Incomprehensible

Who's That?

Few Main Characters
Lots

Naughty Words

Mild
Foul

Naked people

None
Lots

Violence

Tame
Bloody

Breakup movies are a specialty act, and when occurring as a sub-type of romantic comedy, the best ones can portray regret and acceptance with humor and also understanding. Forgetting Sarah Marshall does a decent job of keeping all this in balance, and providing solid entertainment along the way, with likeable performances in the main roles and capable humor in the writing.

Things are set in motion when Jason Segel (of recent Knocked Up fame), playing an L.A. composer for TV, is informed by Kristen Bell, as his girl friend — and the star of the show he writes for — that she wants out of their 5-year relationship. A very un-macho type, Segel breaks down in tears, but soon gets it together enough to plan some time away to help recover from the shock.

This being a romantic comedy, though, he naturally heads for Hawaii, because it was his girl’s favorite spot, and so inevitably lands at the hotel where she turns out to be staying with her new boyfriend, a quirky English rocker embodied lankily — and rather male-skankily — by Russell Brand. Both the newly-parted lovebirds are too proud to consider moving hotels, so the stage is set for constant awkward encounters. These prove especially tricky, since Segel too is soon exploring a possible new love interest, in the appealing shape of Mila Kunis, a sympatica hotel employee.

Happily for the four of them, and most happily for the audience, the bumpings-into that result prove more illuminating, complex, and — despite the comic tone — believable than might be expected. It’s always reassuring when a comedy doesn’t set up any main character as a caricature so as to provide an easy target (e.g., Jane Fonda’s stuffed doll of a villainess in Monster-In-Law). Here, the very glossy Bell (a TV glam-star in real life, the eponymous lead of Veronica Mars) is — surprise! — not a shallow L.A. bunny, but is motivated by understandably complex emotions throughout. Segel, despite those early tears, proves no bumbling dope but rather a normal fellow, looking for some comfort and maybe a new relationship. Kunis is a charmer, and even Brand, though written and played on the edge of Brit-glam absurdity, is essentially a human being (if a self-absorbed one), even demonstrating mostly civil behavior.

True, most of the other denizens of the hotel and the island are one-dimensional types, there to provide sillier and shallower humor, but their peripheral light-weightedness doesn’t really disturb the center of the movie. Not that there aren’t some farce-like moments even for the main protagonists — including a my-sex-is-louder-than-your-sex contest, in adjoining rooms — but all in all, the characters are acted and directed as though they are actual inhabitants of this planet.

Speaking of this planet, Hawaii portrays itself well as always, though the film actually makes minimal use of its lush setting. Indeed, it’s a rather klunky experience, visually and cinematically. Moreover, there are a few strangely clumsy — and sometimes briefly puzzling — flashbacks, that seem to be unnecessary and intrusive. Again, these don’t get in the way much; they just illustrate that this is a film made by people who understand comedy better than they do film technique. But maybe that’s all just as well; we have very little surfing slapstick, leaving more room for enjoyable character interplay. The four main performers lead us along capably, and Segel — less graceful than Owen Wilson, but less schlubby than Will Ferrell — proves a likable enough fellow to carry a pleasant flick like this one.

Do take note: There is some gratuitous nudity (including male frontal), along with a few sex scenes-fairly graphic in a few spots, even though played mostly for laughs.

Brad Burg has written a #1 country hit, composed off-Broadway scores at New York’s Public Theater, and was lead vocalist and pianist in the band at Oh! Calcutta!, the 5th longest-running Broadway show. Putnam published his award-winning collection of children’s poetry, Outside The Lines: Poetry At Play (which he has adapted into a CDs of songs, among those available through his website, www.bradburg.com). He was a long-time senior editor at Medical Economics magazine, and headed Medical Software Reviews.

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