Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Forgetting Ms. Bell

Forgetting Sarah Marshall
DVD from the collection

The Judd Apatow production juggernaught hasn't really had a miss since it first became the subject of Entertainment Weekly cover stories with The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Well, that's not precisely true. It takes a little massaging. Walk Hard wasn't a box-office success, but it was a terrific movie, particularly in the full epic biopic sweep of its extended DVD cut. It was the first one of this run of largely improvised films that had more visual panache than the average "DeGrassi: The Next Generation" episode, thanks to criminally underemployed director Jake Kasdan (Orange County, The Zero Effect). And then on the other hand Pineapple Express was dreary, bloated, and forgettable, but it made a ton of money. In any event, the man is doing well for himself, and it looks like he's starting to put together a stable of actors who will hardly work for anyone else. Apatow's like Woody Allen that way, except for the fact that he's made more than two good movies since 1980.

I've watched Forgetting Sarah Marshall a bunch of times since it came out on DVD. This might be because the last time my father came out to visit, he saw that I'd purchased it and gave me a hard time about wasting money on such a stupid movie. Well, I'm fairly certain I've watched it enough times to justify the purchase price by now. I watched it again this evening because I saw a banner ad on IMDb for another movie with Jason Segel and Paul Rudd, and that gave me the bug.

The reason that Apatow's comedies are so re-viewable, I believe, stems from the improvisation. You're actually watching people converse and react in real time, albeit in character. The more naturalistic tone (and the long unbroken takes, more common in the rom-coms like Virgin and Marshall) makes not only for more fully rounded humans in these heightened-reality situations but also far more subtleties. There's a ton of details in Sarah Marshall that come over more fully the fifth time around: Mila Kunis's ability to communicate almost any message imaginable with mere adjustments to the pitch and duration of the word "yeah." Jonah Hill's unrelenting physicality in his confused pursuit of Russell Brand's rock god character. Every awkward move Bill Hader does in the final puppet rock opera sequence (notice the way he holds the grace note half a second longer than the entire rest of the cast and shifts his eyes to check if anyone saw).

Sometimes the hidden details aren't good ones. Watching the movie this evening, I realized for the first time how completely wasted Kristin Bell is. I was very excited when I heard the "Veronica Mars" star was going to do a Apatow movie, because Bell's a sharply intelligent, nimble young actress with good deadpan timing and no fear. I hope she gets another chance to do one soon, because her title role in Sarah Marshall is not only one-dimensional and clich├ęd, it's also not funny. Billy Baldwin and Jason Bateman, who each have cameos as Sarah Marshall's co-stars, have maybe a minute of screen time between them and get more laughs than Bell, who's around the whole time. Baldwin even gets a bonus laugh when he's not onscreen when Segel rages at him in the recording studio scene. (By the way, I was pretty sure that the guy in that scene who tells Segel he's got to run because he has Allman Brothers tickets was the same fellow who offered Michael Cera cocaine in Superbad, but it's not so. They are two unrelated seedy-looking guys.)

But due to the fact that I enjoyed the film as a whole so much, it took a while to sink in that Bell really drew the short end of the stick in that script. Screenwriter Segel characterized Sarah as venal, self-obsessed, oblivious to others' feelings, and secretly self-loathing. It's such a uniformly negative package that it could only be drawn from real life. As it so happens, Jason Segel had his heart broken by a beautiful young actress who at the time was way more successful than he. (Hint: It's Linda Cardellini.) So his first feature drew a little heavily on what he knew best. As a producer Apatow's chief strength is trusting the instincts of his younger writers and actors to a certain extent, but stepping in when it's most important to make sure each film has real human sentiment at the core. I'm fairly confident that it was Apatow's uncredited work on Seth Rogen and Evan Greenberg's (literally) juvenile script for Superbad that turned that film from a slightly funnier version of Can't Hardly Wait into this generation's answer to American Graffiti. Rogen should have had his mentor take a couple of extra passes at Pineapple Express, too.

So mostly Kristin Bell's exclusion from the laugh party in Forgetting Sarah Marshall can be blamed on Jason Segel. I can't be too hard on the guy, given that he wrote, conceived, and staged a mini-Dracula musical. Besides, my heart still hurts for him from that one episode of "Freaks and Geeks" where Locke's dad took his drumkit away. Past Segel, however, I think you have to look at Bell herself for some of explanation. This was her first big comedy movie role, and she was surrounded by a bunch of experienced comics, many of whom had worked together before. What's more, in most of her scenes she's playing opposite Russell Brand, a man with not even the very least tiny little hint of shame, playing a character with no restraint. That probably made it tough for her to be funny. Because she's a pro, she played the character as written. Probably too much so -- when a scene arrives about two-thirds through when Sarah gets to explain all of the lengths she went to to make her relationship with Peter (Segel) work, it honestly plays as if Sarah/Bell is lying through her teeth. I don't think it was supposed to, but since we have seen no redeeming qualities on her part up to that point (I mean, besides her butt and her abs in bikinis) it seems like she's just further manipulating her poor hapless ex.

The scene that does work, almost too well, is the scene a bit later on when having been dumped by Aldous (Brand), Sarah tries to seduce Peter away from his promising new romance with Rachel (Kunis). It's creepy and unpleasant, the behavior of a woman with limited resources and fewer scruples. Segel and Bell's inability to make Sarah at all sympathetic to the audience is the movie's biggest flaw. It is possible for two people in a relationship to not be right for each other without one of them being a complete monster, you know. It's puzzling how in a movie full of so many nicely-drawn supporting characters the linchpin of the whole piece is a void.

His work isn't really germane to the point I was trying to make above regarding the film, but I simply can't let a discussion of Forgetting Sarah Marshall close without giving respect to Jack McBrayer. The man's a national treasure. We should bronze him, if it wouldn't make it too hard to pull on a page's jacket.

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