When Fox cruelly cancelled Judd Apatow’s college-based sitcom Undeclared, one of the biggest apparent tragedies was the fate of Jason Segel, who played Lizzie’s deranged ex-boyfriend Eric. While the bulk of the cast went on to find fame in various other Apatow productions (The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up) Segel, one of the starts of the show, appeared to have been left behind to eke out a living on American TV (How I Met Your Mother). Fortunately all that appears to change with the release of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, written by and starring Segel, as this latest burst of smart, witty and emotionally-involving comedy will surely see his career follow a similar trajectory to Paul Rudd, Seth Rogen, and the other Apatow alumni who have gone on to find fame.
Devastated by his break-up to the eponymous Sarah Marshall, Peter Bretter (Segel), a composer for a CSI-like TV show in which she is the lead actress, decides to take a trip to Hawaii to rediscover himself. Who should he bump into at his resort, but Sarah and her new boyfriend, the English rock star Aldous Snow (a surprisingly restrained Russell Brand)? Though the premise may sound flimsy, the film is anything but. Many of the characters here appear to be comedic stereotypes (particularly Mila Kundis, playing the “rebound girl”, a member of the resort staff who takes pity on Peter) but are so fully realised they become anything but. Kundis is a revelation; playing her role so adorably it is almost impossible not to follow Peter’s lead as he falls in love with her.
The most surprising aspect of Forgetting Sarah Marshall is how brutally funny the first half plays out. Things lighten up considerably once Peter arrives in Hawaii and Paul Rudd and Jonah Hill turn up (as a permanently stoned surfing instructor, and a Russell Brand-obsessed waiter and aspiring musician respectively) but up to that point the humour is incredibly self-deprecating and dark. Many of the jokes are painful and are played at Peter’s expense (montages of him weeping uncontrollably abound), but Segel seems to have no fear of exposing himself (in fact on two occasions he is prepared to fully expose himself for his art, in the most literal sense of the word) and it is his vulnerability and earnestness that makes him, and the film, ultimately succeed. One sequence, where Peter laments how much his apartment reminds him of Sarah, and how fresh his cereal will always be thanks to her influence on his life, is more profound than a throwaway scene in a romantic comedy has any right to be. Amidst the pathos and pain though, Forgetting Sarah Marshall contains enough moments of genuine hilarity (Peter’s passion project, a rock opera about the life of Dracula is a surreal highlight) to never become depressing, and represents another sturdy addition to the Apatow canon.