Sunday, May 4, 2008

Apatow Amnesia

Judd Apatow continues to make good on his "No Penis Left Behind" promise (if only our government was as ardent) with his latest flick, Forgetting Sarah Marshall. This time, though, the penis belongs to the star, Jason Segel, and it's on display much more prominently than in any of Apatow's other films. Segel's penis receives about 25-30 solid seconds of screen time. What's especially interesting is that Segel wrote the script, so he penned his own penis into the film. I definitely respect his courage. I'm not bothered by the plethora of penises in Apatow's work; in fact, I'm rather amused at his insistence on shoving male genitalia in America's collective face. But the gag is growing stale, and I know that Apatow is an intelligent man, and I'm thinking that he can make us a more worthwhile promise than this one. Just off the top of my head - maybe he can promise to stop making his films too long.

Yes, Forgetting Sarah Marshall maintains the Apatow tradition of overstaying its welcome. With the exception of Superbad, which I think is perfect, all of his films would have benefited from a more liberal hand in the editing room. I thought Knocked Up was the worst offender...that is, until I saw Sarah Marshall and the time seemed to drag on forever. It felt excruciatingly long. I was super antsy watching it. An hour and fifty-two minutes isn't even terribly long. The running time itself isn't necessarily the problem. Billy Wilder made many outstanding comedies that run well over two hours, but his pacing is spot-on, and the duration is proportionate to the story being told. In other words, they shouldn't be one second shorter. Apatow has not figured out how to balance story with running time. He doesn't know when to say when. More is not always better, and it certainly isn't with Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

You've all seen the billboards and trailers, so I'll be brief with my plot description. Jason Segel is Peter Bretter, a musician/composer who writes the music for his girlfriend Sarah Marshall's TV show Crime Scene (a delightful parody of all those intolerable CSIs and Law and Orders clogging the airwaves). Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell) is a big star. Peter is a self-loathing mess. She breaks up with him, he takes it badly, has lots of meaningless sex, decides that the sex isn't helping, and is convinced by his brother Brian (Bill Hader) to take a trip to Hawaii. Of course, Sarah Marshall and her new beau, a ridiculous specimen of a rock star named Aldous Snow (Russell Brand), are there. Peter freaks out, but he gains the sympathy and affection of Rachel (Mila Kunis), the girl who works the front desk at the hotel that both Peter and Sarah are staying at. Let the games begin.

Unfortunately, the games aren't that much fun. I felt like I saw all the best bits in the trailer, and the rest wasn't terribly impressive. I enjoyed myself for the most part (except near the end, when I wanted to gnaw my arm off from boredom - seriously, I thought it was going to end about five different times), but it's too formulaic and predictable. I defended Judd Apatow against claims of misogyny in another post. I'm happy to say that the depiction of the women in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, specifically Sarah and Rachel, is about as far from misogynistic as possible. Actually, they come off far better than the men. Peter and Aldous are idiots. What I think people who fling accusations of misogyny around fail to realize is that there's a danger in going too far the other way. Of course, it's horrible to show women as nothing but sexist caricatures, but are all women supposed to be saintly paradigms then? That's equally one-dimensional and harmful. Real women have flaws. Sarah and Rachel certainly do. However, they're extremely well-developed and three-dimensional, and those flaws are part of who they are. Having flaws and weaknesses doesn't make them targets of misogyny - it just makes them stronger, more realistic, and human. I love Sarah and Rachel. They're empowering because they have their own minds and make their own decisions in life, even if we perceive those decisions to be mistakes. Sarah and Rachel are interesting, extremely sympathetic (the male characters aren't at all to me), and they refuse to be ruled by men. I think they're great examples of womanhood. On charges of misogyny in the case of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, I hereby find Judd Apatow acquitted.

That being said, the film is guilty of not being very good. It seriously lagged at points, and I occasionally found myself just plain bored. I only laughed out loud maybe twice. The rest of the time, I was waiting for it to be funny. It is, after all, a comedy, n'est-ce pas? My main problem with the film is Jason Segel. He's not capable of carrying an entire movie. This is the first time I've seen him extensively (I know lots of people have preexisting attachments because of Freaks and Geeks and How I Met Your Mother), but I looked at him objectively, and I was unimpressed. He's not a good actor. I mean, he's okay, but I didn't see any depth or discernible character arc. He was just as obnoxious to me at the end as he was at the beginning. In all of Apatow's other films, the Everyman is socially challenged, average-looking to fat, or a loser, but they're all eventually likeable. Actually, I think they're instantly likeable and identifiable. Peter is not a likeable character. In fact, I kind of hate him. He never emerges from his pit of despair and self-loathing long enough to become a real boy. He's pathetic in a totally non-endearing way. Segel may have done a decent job writing, but he sure botches the acting. He is NOT ready for his close-up, Mr. Apatow.

That leads to another huge flaw - it's totally inconceivable that two intelligent, independent, strong-willed women would be fighting over Peter. It doesn't matter that he's not Brad Pitt. He has no redeeming qualities whatsoever! He spends the entire film as either a shallow jerk or a self-pitying, unambitious loser. Ooh, line up, ladies. I don't get what Sarah and Rachel see in him, and Segel never helps us get it. Oh, okay, Peter's big dream is to make a Dracula puppet musical. Whoopee. It's fun for a little while, but it feels really self-indulgent on Segel's part and totally insincere in the context of the film. Well, I guess it's about as insincere as everything else Peter is or does. The Dracula business quickly turns from cute to cloying, and my major issue with it is that it just doesn't seem terribly motivated by the story or the character. It rings false for me. What do we really know about Peter that would make it at all plausible for him to do this? Well, I suppose we know everything about him - there's simply not much there to know, and certainly nothing to justify this scenario. Is the puppet musical something that Peter wants to do, or is it something that Jason Segel wants to do? It appears to be the latter, as Segel is now in talks to make a Muppet movie. The Dracula bit screams, "Look at me, I'm Jason Segel. I'm so kooky and clever. Isn't my self-deprecation adorable?" Um, no, it isn't. Sorry, Jason. While the whiny, selfish tone of the musical fits the character perfectly, I still don't believe that it's something he would do. I don't buy it. Even if I did buy it, which I emphatically don't, he's too unlikeable of a character to pull off the potential quirky-sweet charm of such a bizarre project. Thus, the overall result is grating. And if this production is the culmination of all of Peter's efforts in life, that's really sad. Even Peter's minimal aspirations are lame and unsatisfying. Blechh. Peter is such a lousy, despicable character.

There is some great acting in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, though. Everyone is over the moon about Mila Kunis because she's not playing Jackie from That '70s Show. Well, I am glad to see her doing something else, and she IS wonderful here, but the real female stand-out for me is Kristen Bell as Sarah Marshall herself. Maybe that's some of my own bias creeping in, because I love Bell on Veronica Mars. Sarah Marshall is actually my favorite character. Bell makes her extremely complex and empathetic. She definitively negates those stupid Sarah Marshall ads by making Sarah a completely-realized human being. Bell even proves that she's an adept comedian. Her performance is all-around outstanding, but she's total dynamite when Sarah tells Peter why she broke up with him. She's fierce and vulnerable at the same time. I love Kristen Bell. I wish the whole movie had been about Sarah Marshall.

I have no love at all for Jack McBrayer or the annoying subplot surrounding his sexually-inexperienced character on a honeymoon with his freaky wife, but there's some decent supporting work by Hader, Jonah Hill as a waiter/stalker, and Paul Rudd as a perpetually stoned surfer. However, the breakout star of this film is Russell Brand as cocky, pretentious philanthropist/rocker Aldous Snow. I have no idea where he came from, but he's hilarious. When the film was flatlining, he was like a much-needed comic defibrillator.

I know I sound really cranky, but Forgetting Sarah Marshall seriously is a good film, with sporadic instances of greatness. It's seldom hysterically funny, but it's consistently passably funny. Segel's script is generally fresh and insightful, though majorly flawed. I applaud his efforts to try to make something different, and he does achieve some rare moments of poignancy and even brilliance. Nicholas Stoller (who?), the director, is a non-presence. Besides, we all know it's an Apatow film, so Stoller doesn't matter. It's sad, but true. Apatow does a fine job of directing when he chooses to do so, but when he's not doing it, the directors of his films are essentially anonymous. Actually, the directing in Apatow's films is pretty anonymous itself. Granted, it's not the attraction, but would it hurt to jazz it up a little? The directing has never been revolutionary, special, or even noticeable. There's no style. I can't wait to see how an Apatow vehicle fares with a real, acclaimed, renowned, stylistically distinctive director at the helm, namely indie auteur David Gordon Green with Pineapple Express.

Anyway, I honestly did like Forgetting Sarah Marshall for the most part. I just wanted to love it. I guess I'm being so harsh because I'm disappointed in Apatow and Company. Sure, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is much better than most of the junk out there, but I'm worried that Judd Apatow is getting too comfortable. The rest of his significant works (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Superbad) have been near perfect or, in the case of Superbad, perfect. Forgetting Sarah Marshall marks a considerable decline in Apatowian quality. There's the trademark humiliation factor, but not the usual heart that goes with it. It's simply not up to par. He's capable of more than this. Obviously, everything Apatow touches doesn't have to be a masterpiece. Even Hitchcock wasn't infallible. But Forgetting Sarah Marshall doesn't seem like it's trying very hard, and yet critics are fawning all over it simply because of Apatow's name. I think he needs a hearty dose of tough love. He's been doing this for awhile now, and just being "better" than the rest of the Hollywood trash isn't good enough at this point in his career. Aim higher. And for crying out loud, EDIT!

Ultimately, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is regrettably forgettable.

Rating: ***1/2 (out of 5)

1 comment:

Bill Treadway said...
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