After the comedy impresario Judd Apatow tried and failed to launch Jason Segel’s career through two ill-fated but much-beloved television shows – Freaks and Geeks, and Undeclared – he gave the downhearted actor some not unkind advice: “You’re kind of a weird dude. The only way you’re going to make it is if you start writing your own material.”
Forgetting Sarah Marshall was the end result of this advice, a 2008 breakup comedy set in Hawaii in which Segel mines his own past misfortunes for laughs and pathos. He plays Peter, a lovable but hapless TV composer who is cruelly dumped by his live-in partner, the titular Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell), who also happens to be a Hollywood star – and is therefore quite unavoidable.
As Peter decamps to a holiday resort in Hawaii to lick his wounds, Sarah suddenly appears at the same hotel with her new fling, the international rock star Aldous Snow – played by Russell Brand in a true Hollywood star turn. It takes this minor leap of logic to set up the boilerplate scenario Peter finds himself in, trapped in paradise with his bikini-clad ex-partner and her outlandishly sexual rock star lover. Just as he seems doomed to wallow in his own heartbreak for two slow cinematic hours, possibility arrives in the form of a bubbly hotel concierge, Rachel – played by Mila Kunis.
Segel is a natural underdog, with his Great Dane physicality and eyes that emote suffering as a default, which would have made it easy to paint Bell’s Sarah as a one-dimensional villain – especially when it becomes apparent there were years of overlap between the collapse of their relationship and the start of her fling with Aldous.
It’s to Segel’s credit (plus that of Apatow, who leaves indelible prints on every film he produces) that Peter’s own inertia is slowly revealed to be the real cause of the breakup. Stasis is a frequent relationship killer but it’s hard to chronicle such erosion in a snappy two-hour comedy. Sarah pointing out how Peter once wore sweatpants every day for a week, followed by his angry denial, then a crash edit of “evidence” from the seven days, does the job nicely, and is a laugh-out-loud moment to boot.
Speaking of laugh-out-loud moments, I feel it’s somewhat burying the lede (or at least the pickle) not to acknowledge the opening minutes of the film, in which Peter, fresh out of the shower and wrapped only in a towel, is dumped by Sarah. Too shocked and heartbroken to function, he drops the towel and we are treated to one of the most humiliating scenes in celluloid history – a nude, crying, flaccid Segel begging a beautiful, fully clothed starlet not to leave him. The audience is spared none of the graphic shock; this scene elicited one of the biggest in-cinema reactions I have ever encountered.
Furthering this humiliation, the breakup scene was based on a real scenario in Segel’s life. “I was trying to experience this viscerally, as a person,” he told the Times in 2008. “But all I could think was, ‘This is hilarious. I cannot wait for her to leave so I can write this down.’”
Also based on Segel’s life is the largely irrelevant subplot in which Peter is working on a Dracula musical starring puppets, which is too silly and largely inconsequential to get into further. Segel scratched this puppeteering itch in a big way when he wrote and starred in The Muppets a few years later, and the creepy seeds of this obsession are evident in the way this plot point is shoehorned in here.
As you’d expect from an Apatow film, the casting is perfect. Bill Hader, Paul Rudd, Jonah Hill and Jack McBrayer all nail their too-small roles; Rudd, as perma-baked surf instructor Koonu, delivers the film’s best one-liner when he declares he quit wearing a watch when he “moved out here”, only to reveal his phone has a clock on it “so I don’t really need it”.
Brand is the film’s real ace in the hole. This was at the height of his international fame but at the time it seemed to be his “introductory” role before an inevitable rise to superstardom. It’s noteworthy the only other time he popped up in a film of note was to reprise this character in Get Him to the Greek, an undercooked vehicle that proves that Aldous is best served in small bites. Forgetting Sarah Marshall is his finest showing, and remains the one most closely suited to his verbose lizard king shtick. It’s a testament to the overstuffed quality of this film that Aldous is used merely as a foil then sent back to London.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall is a wonderful film, largely about heartbreak and betrayal, but also about hope, second chances and the need to work at relationships. And for approximately 73 frames, it also proves true that old adage: a flaccid penis will never not be hilarious.