Sunday, April 27, 2008

Getting Forgetting Sarah Marshall

This review contains some spoiled jokes.

The Apatow Reparatory Co. is doing great. The troupe includes many principal writers or actors from the seminal tv series Freaks and Geeks, some of whom do both, as in Seth Rogen's starring in Knocked Up and writing Superbad, or Jason Segel's writing and starring in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Both were key players on F&G.

Rogen and Segel as seen in Knocked Up

The gradual transition from the grossout-ready premise of Virgin to the conceptual adulthood discomfort of Knocked Up (which includes footage of childbirth) and profane but sensitive coming of age of Superbad has now arrived at a bare-bones romantic comedy plot structure of FSM, which sounds as cliched on paper as you can imagine:

A guy breaks up with his girlfriend and goes to Hawaii to forget her but finds her there with a new boyfriend. Then he meets a new girl.

The marketing campaign doesn't make the film sound any more intriguing, starting with the fake-graffiti posters which convey an extremely inaccurate animosity emanating from Jason Segel, star and writer -

Which are wrong! He's not even mad at her for three-quarters of the film, he's pathetically heartbroken! Oh well. Some Boomer in the marketing department with a 20 year delay from reality must've just caught up to the hipness of the word SUCKS...

As to the trailer, Roger Ebert once sagely observed that trailers represent the film the studio wanted and not necessarily the one that they got. In FSM's case, they wanted a film as simple as the premise.

The premise is annoying simple. What makes the movie very good is the level of characterization given all the supporting cast you'd expect to be two-dimensional, from the stoner surfer to the hunky new lothario boyfriend to the honeymooning Christian couple...

Speaking of Christians, the Apatow brand of comedy has been likened to a more morally responsible and sensitive form of raucous , thanks largely to the emotional integrity and basic good-heartedness of their characters as opposed to the glib party animal antiheroes of Wedding Crashers or American Pie. This comparison has been made favorably, as when conservative magazine National Review praised the implicit pro-life decision of Knocked Up, and unfavorably as when the Marxists at Slant Magazine took points off of The 40 Year Old Virgin for having Steve Carrell get married before finally getting laid.

The raunchy version of cultural conservatism remains seen in FSM. Though the two main couple of the film have sex out of wedlock (why do I feel like CAP Alert all of a sudden?) the story's Hawaiian location is a hotel full of honeymooning couples, one of whom are the aforementioned Christian who have waited until marriage to get it on.

Where the Apatow brand diverts in a big way is not making their inexperience a derisive joke at the characters' expense. Critically, 40 Year Old Virgin didn't either. Instead, there is for instance a joke where the new husband (who vaguely resembles Toxic Avenger's Melvin the Mop Boy) can't feel sexual pleasure despite endless pounding away, making him a total stud to his cute new wife.

Virtually every supporting character crosses paths with one another, and when The Lothario meets up with The Christian, his response to the former virgin's lack of experience is simply "What? Oh, right, right, the God thing" and then he proceeds to give an impromptu graphic lesson in sex positions.

Also of note is Jason Segel's witty stepbrother, a husband and father and whose wife is tricked into a harmless dirty joke of pantomiming oral sex on her spouse. The non-explicit no-hard-feelings vulgarity of this scene nearly encapsulates the Apatow ethos at play from film to film.

We have in this film a 50/50 ratio of married and unmarried people, all of whom are shown to be sexually active and open-minded about it, including Christian dorks. That's a hell of a lot more "progressive" than the manner in which Baby Mama and Juno casually offer single yuppie midwifery and guilt-free adoption as emotionally agreeable and valid alternatives to the formation of (gasp) nuclear families.

Which brings me to the first thing I noticed coming out of the theater, a strange dichotomy to the cultural sensitivity: three of the four leads are Hollywood fucks with lives most people simply cannot relate to. Titular Sarah Marshall is an actress, her new boyfriend The Lothario is a freaking international rock star, and Jason Segel composes music for television, including Sarah's show. Everyone is worried about their careers. The only non-entertainment industry person is Segel's new love interest Mila Kunis, who works at the Hawaiian hotel. She encourages him to follow his dream of mounting a theatrical rock opera, which he certainly couldn't afford to do if not for his prior industry capital.

Would it have been so hard to make the key players non-famous people? There was nothing in the story that couldn't have worked without that detail, even the Rock Opera could've been realized by Segel's character on a smaller budget in less elaborate scale than what we end up seeing in the film.

Who relates to this, outside of people who are in or want to be in the entertainment industries? Steve Carrell's employment at a Best Buy type store in Virgin seems practically proletariat by comparison. Knocked Up's female lead was a TV hostess as well, and the detail was just as irrelevant to the story.

I really am surprised, and hope this doesn't reflect a disconnectedness stemming from the time some F&G kids spent growing up a bit in the world of The Arts - I recently saw 1998's SLC Punk and was surprised to see an 18 year old Segel in the supporting cast.

Anyhow, the next event Apatow production is Pineapple Express, some sort of stoner action comedy hybrid directed by David Gordon Green, of all people...So we'll continue to see the full spectrum of the F&G alumni's cultural outlook, which in spite of some apparent Hollywood out-of-touchedness continues to be more empathic and honest towards the post-Boomer generations' emotional needs and concerns than any of their competitors.

And those emotional needs certainly include a bigger, better weed comedy.

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