Producer Judd Apatow has created a perverse (yet strangely endearing) Holy Trinity of contemporary comedy in the last few years: The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Superbad. And this machine just keeps spitting out more, with Drillbit Taylor and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story as the most recent (and worst performing) of the bunch. His latest film, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, has its charms, and certainly tries to engage in an honest examination of relationships, like the best of Apatow’s films. But unlike, say, Knocked Up, the laughs feel cheap, and so does its exploitation of the audience’s emotions.
It’s probably no coincidence that, like the last two relative failures, Apatow’s involvement on Forgetting Sarah Marshall is limited to a producer’s credit. Writer/actor Jason Segel stars as Peter Bretter, an average dude with the perfect slacker life: a composing job that doesn’t require sobriety or pants, and a hot actress girlfiend (Kristen Bell, the titular character). Until, of course, his girlfriend dumps him, and he falls apart. Now, Peter must find a way to mend his shattered heart, perhaps with the help of a few friendly employees at the Hawaiian resort where he hopes to escape from his emotions—only to find his ex-girlfriend in the arms of a pompous, air-headed rock star.
The break-up scene that opens the movie typifies the movie’s shortcomings: a weak joke (look, a penis!) undermines the sympathy that the scene is supposed to invoke, and sets up the character’s gradual and fulfilling redemption, hopefully in the arms of another hot chick. Segel retains the awkwardness that made him so endearing as an aspiring high school musician in Apatow’s Freaks and Geeks (where he got his start with doppelganger Seth Rogen), but transplanted to the adult world, he mostly seems pathetic.
In one particularly telling scene, Peter can’t get it up in bed and exhorts his partner to just keep trying, which strangely sums up the movie. It’s not that funny, but maybe if the cast of awkward characters keeps cracking inane jokes, something will work.
And occasionally it does, though not often. The familiar faces of Bill Hader and Jonah Hill (both from Superbad) disappoint, especially Hill, as a waiter infatuated with Sarah Marshall’s new boyfriend—British rocker Aldous Snow (Russell Brand), an amusing caricature for the film to mock. In Apatow’s world, the nice guys always finish first, as long as they can make the hot girls laugh.
Apatow’s movies have been hailed, and rightly so, for returning substance to comedy. Which is why this movie is so disappointing, since it has the same shallow emotional depths as a generic romantic comedy—make sure the heartbreak and jealousy aren’t taken too seriously by inserting a few awkward jokes, or just a few flashes of penis—undermining itself with an irreverence approaching Adam Sandler territory.
The film’s only redeeming moments come from music (composed by Lyle Workman). Peter’s dream is to write a rock opera based on Dracula—to Peter, a tragic lovelorn figure. Segel’s pathetic character works in his favor here, as the film nudges us to laugh at his earnest, unintentionally hilarious project, a la “Springtime for Hitler” in The Producers.
The Apatow formula yields decreasing returns (and decreasing laughs). We get it, the good guy wins and everyone lives happily ever after. It’s just not funny anymore.