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Shipwrecked (Again) on Apatow Island

Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Dir: Nicholas Stoller, Now Playing

“Knock knock.”
“Who’s there?”
“Frat boys over thirty who eat cereal out of salad bowls and cry when their successful girlfriends dump them for rockstars.”
“Frat boys over thirty who eat cereal out of salad bowls and cry when their successful girlfriends dump them for rockstars, who?”

That would be the latest dick-flick, Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Because yeah, there’s dicks in it. And cereal. And surfing. And cliff-hanging. And then, because this joke isn’t so funny, if I were director Nicholas Stoller, I would insert a picture of me with my pants down, penis blazin’. And then I’d have Judd Apatow sign his name on the picture of my penis. And then...well, you get the idea: Forgetting Sarah Marshall, the newest Judd Apatow Production (Superbad, Knocked Up, The 40-Year Old Virgin), sorta rocks balls.

What began with Paul Feig’s Freaks and Geeks, the brilliant TV show from 1999 (and stockpile for now-Apatow cast members), has morphed into Sarah Marshall, the most recent Apatow groaner. There are sex-moan wars, full-frontals, oozing bloody cuts, booze-hounds who become beach-bound, fruit loops, and really hot tan girls. The hero, Peter (Jason Segel), is a songwriter of dumb, atonal music for a dumb, atonal TV crime show that his (dumb, atonal) girlfriend stars in, even though his life’s dream is to put on a puppeteered rock-opera starring Dracula as a lovesick vampire. He has been brutally rebuffed by the industry—eventually losing not only his gal Sarah Marshall (Kirsten Bell), but his job as well. His only salvation is the Hawaiian lifestyle of slack. Oh, and Rachel (Mila Kunis), the babe at the front desk who changes his life forever. Mila’s so incredible that, like, when Sarah Marshall goes down on Peter after she realizes she wants him back…he doesn’t get hard.

Peter goes to Hawaii after being dumped and stumbles upon his ex with her new British rocker boyfriend, Aldous Snow, who wears leather pants on the beach, spouts new-age free love nonsense, and fucks like a circus performer. Peter has to sit alone at dinner and watch Sarah Marshall flirt with the gyrating singer who belts out songs about being “inside her.” He’s Apatow Island’s perpetual villain: The Cool Guy. But not-cool Peter has all the Hawaiian locals on his side: a blazed surf instructor (Paul Rudd), Snow’s homoerotic stalker (Jonah Hill), and Peter’s step-brother back home (Bill Hader) through the web-cam on his laptop. The hotel staffers take Peter to bonfires, sneak him mini bottles of Kahlua, and then Rachel the receptionist gets him laid.

Kristen Bell plays Sarah Marshall, and even though the film is named for her, she never gets to make any jokes. She’s there as proof that someone as hot as her can love a loser, and—since she got sick of his self-loathing, cereal-eating depression—deserves to choke on her catfish and die. Mila Kunis is a prop too: sexy as hell until she opens her mouth and utters nothing worth remembering. It’s sad, because Bell is actually hilarious; she played Veronica on Veronica Mars (2004), the TV series about a badass teenage private eye in California (whose character, by the way, I’m pretty sure Diablo Cody ripped off for Juno). But in Sarah Marshall, Bell makes no jokes. Director Stoller made a big mistake keeping the girls quieter than their bonehead boyfriends; if he had given them more comedic license, the movie would be genuinely layered. But maybe he thinks what people like best about Judd Apatow movies is that the women aren’t funny, and their punishment for being obsessed over (and obsessed over, and obsessed over) is that they have to be one-dimensional snores. Or writer Jason Segel has no idea how to write a woman, and being a babe is sufficient justification for being on camera.

In terms of style, Sarah Marshall is a big, fun cliché. In beach cliff-jumping scenes, Peter gets called a pussy by his new crush (“Peter, I can see your vagina from here!!!”), and nerdy honeymooners fail at fellatio. And then, wait! Omigod... A moral. Follow your dreams, and shit. Peter wants to make a rock opera. With puppets. Screenwriter Segel openly admitts his love for puppets, and is slated to direct the next Muppet movie. Does someone smell roman a clef? But—spoiler alert!!!!!!—in Sarah Marshall, boy gets girl in the end. Who knew? The Bad Ex will become unemployed and undesirable, and the Hot Girl will realize that true love with a struggling songwriter is cooler than surfing. In fact, she’ll fly back to the states and do the songwriter in the dressing room of his weird, arty Dracula opera (which is actually touching and bizarre), and he’ll be waiting, pants down, full circle, just the way the movie started. Because, like every Apatow film, the nerds rule the world, and the girls are along for the ride.

Here’s what’s brilliant about Apatow and his crew: they have successfully created a formula that elicits a laugh, over and over. Their movies are commercially palatable, and the humor so pop culturally derivative, it’s disposable, and therefore re-creatable. Apatow’s films are like a hit series. Same cast, same story: loser eats cereal, saves day, gets girl. And while kind of funny, the formulaic output is beginning to feel thrown together. It’s not like there’s anything so ground-breaking about it; the nerdy guy’s been deified ever since Billy Wilder’s The Apartment and Some Like It Hot. Even the dorky freshman from Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused got laid at his first party. So yeah, Sarah Marshall is an okay movie, and some of the jokes are spot on. But it’s been done.

Don’t get me wrong, I grew up with Apatowish characters and now I date them; I love the nerdy boys, and get off on steamy eyeglasses and superhero impersonations. I’m a card holding resident of Apatow Island—and I’d be boring if I wasn’t. I bet most people would rather see the next Apatow film than some period piece with Keira Knightly, any day. But Veronica Mars and Freaks and Geeks are better than Sarah Marshall. Way better. Is it a sad day in history when filmmakers bite too hard from TV’s cookie? I kinda want to lock Judd Apatow and Diablo Cody in a room together and see who puns the other to death. I guess until that day comes, I say keep chugging ‘em out, Judd. Ride that wave.


Makenna Goodman

Makenna Goodman is a freelance writer based in New York City.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2008

All Issues