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'Sarah Marshall': Sex Comedy, Awkwardness Intact

Peter (Jason Segel) tries to forget his ex at a Hawaiian resort; Mila Kunis is on hand to help, but it's not that simple: The ex turns up, new lover in tow.
Peter (Jason Segel) tries to forget his ex at a Hawaiian resort; Mila Kunis is on hand to help, but it's not that simple: The ex turns up, new lover in tow.

I have a picture, maybe a fantasy, of the Judd Apatow Factory, which produced Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin and now Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

It's this place where suddenly wealthy dweeb filmmakers shamble in and earnestly discuss the problem of leaving adolescence and settling down with beautiful women they could never get near in high school, but they've finally managed to land.

Then they shamble into casting sessions — in which beautiful young actresses try out opposite dweebish actors for parts in comedies about dweebish men with problems leaving adolescence and settling down with beautiful women.

There's a long tradition of beauty-and-the-dweeb comedies that preceed Apatow's reign, but the sexual embarrassment stakes here have been ratcheted way up. Take the confrontation that launches Forgetting Sarah Marshall: Peter, a big, depressive composer played by Jason Segel, lives with Kristin Bell's title character, a lithe blonde actress with the lead in a cookie-cutter forensic detective series. He's waiting for her when she gets home and says she's leaving him — only he expects that they'll be making love, and he's stark naked.

That's naked naked: We see his penis, not a common sight in mainstream movies. So even though the pleading dialogue that follows is nothing new, the scene is pitched at a higher level of humiliation. You could feel bad for Segel — except he wrote the movie and built his emasculation into every frame.

Peter ends up leaving L.A. for a Hawaiian resort where, wouldn't you know, there's Sarah and her new boyfriend, a famous English rocker named Aldous Snow, played by Russell Brand. It's not exactly Noel Coward repartee, and the scenes that follow are directed by first-timer Nicholas Stoller with no fizz.

But the good bits begin to accumulate. Apatow regular Paul Rudd kills as a whacked-out surfing instructor trying to teach Peter the Zen way of getting off a board. It's a classic scene: minimal dialogue, absurd variations — Zen hilarity.

And then there's Brand, an English comedian whose babbling BBC radio show I've yet to acquire a taste for, but who's astounding here: manic yet laid-back, utterly at ease with his own magnificence. He lifts Forgetting Sarah Marshall into a different sphere.

As Sarah, Kristin Bell is extremely likable. The problem is she's overshadowed by Mila Kunis as Rachel, a resort employee who functions in the plot as the girl-next-door brunette alternative. I know I'm speaking with what feminist film scholars call the Male Gaze — what everyone else calls "dirty middle-aged man-slobbering" — but this is a sex comedy, and appearances count, and the almond-eyed Kunis is like some extraterrestrial redesign of gorgeousness. It's hard to sympathize with Peter's grief when she's the fallback.

Anyway, the four of them — Sarah, Aldous, Peter, and Rachel — have an awkward dinner, but eventually, hilariously, the boy-men bond over Sarah's last movie:

"Awful bloody film," Aldous says. "Ridiculous premise ... Why would a mobile phone kill anyone?"

Peter chimes in: "Why couldn't you just take the battery out of the phone?"

"It's a metaphor," Sarah protests, "for addiction to technology."

Aldous: "It's a metaphor for a crap movie."

Many scenes are that funny in the second half, where Peter labors over a Dracula rock opera that's actually an eloquent expression of his alienation from women.

What makes Apatow-produced sex comedies more vivid than most of their ilk is that they actually feature sex — awkward, relatively realistic sex — and that the men hit authentic notes of psychosexual weirdness. Forgetting Sarah Marshall isn't as good as Knocked Up or Superbad, but it keeps breaking out of its template. It's often crazily inspired.

Now if only the Apatow Factory could get some scripts by female writers that dramatize the other side of the Great Sexual Divide, it might be a place of joy — and embarrassed recognition — for everyone.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.