Forgetting Sarah Marshall
Comedy runs the gamut from tender to lewd in one of the more nuanced and less crass progeny of Freaks and Geeks alumni
reviewed by Mark Burns
Peter (Jason Segel: Knocked Up) is an unremarkable L.A. everydude who’s settled into the gig of scoring episodes for a CSI Miami-like series. The homebody’s also managed to score an improbable long-term relationship with the show’s star, Sarah (Kristen Bell: Veronica Mars). His happy doldrums turn stormy, though, when Sarah sweeps in out of the blue to dump him. Peter vacations to Hawaii to ease his crisis, but he finds himself at the same resort as Sarah and her new squeeze, rocker Aldous Snow (Russell Brand: Penelope). Thus Peter begins a tormented quest to move on, helped along by resort hostess Rachel (Mila Kunis: That ’70s Show), his new crush.
Comedy runs the gamut from tender to lewd. Awkwardly realistic yet exaggerated uncomfortable situations a la The Office represent the former. See Peter as the hypersensitive male, lapsing into doubt, obsession and girlish weep as he tries to adjust. As for the lewd, sexual humor including a strangely explicit crash-course in lovemaking it imparts a funny edge. Fun tweaks include a few ridiculous lampoons of pop culture plus one oddly creative late element.
Star Jason Segel follows the lead of fellow Freaks and Geeks alum Seth Rogen in penning his own script here. Freaks auteur Judd Apatow increasingly resembles a comedic Fagin. His creative progeny continue to fan out across the Hollywood scene to spread his aesthetic of explicit humor nuanced with healthy drama and story.
The script is smart. Humor proceeds as ebb and flow, building up to the ridiculous before retreating to subtler fare that gives the drama room to breathe. The two lives of this movie mesh nicely through consistent interplay. As contrast, while Wedding Crashers did both, it loaded all the best fun at the front, then flipped a switch and labored through a heavier finish. Here, transitions are smooth and frequent, and the drama is substantial yet light enough to prevent it from becoming a downer.
Among its filmic cousinry, Forgetting Sarah Marshall seems friendliest for those who’ve thus far shied from Apatow and his ilk. This is one of the more nuanced and less crass of such options to come down the pike. (More surprisingly for its pedigree, there’s no toking.) Plot proves solid, and the story unfolds neatly, if a touch predictably. Flashbacks flesh out the history between Peter and Sarah, and performances benefit from well-developed characters. Surprisingly, heartbreaker Sarah is allowed a dose of humanity rather than relegated to simple villain. Caricature does run a bit thin in Aldous’ dim, libidinous rocker averaging two-and-a-half dimensions but the twit proves fun and is even afforded a smarter moment or two.
First-time director Nicholas Stoller does a fine job of capturing the tale, generally evidencing a good sense of comic timing and overall pacing. Certain moments do want for snap, though, and a couple laughs spoiled in previews might lack sufficient additional context to keep them fresh.
Still, such weaknesses are minor strikes. Fans of similar movies will no doubt enjoy, and even doubters may be pleasantly surprised.
Good comedy • R • 112 min.
This Christmas disappointment is a lump of coal.
reviewed by Jonathan Parker
A 30-something couple who usually travel to the islands for Christmas get stuck with their parents instead in the unfunny and unappealing Four Christmases. This Christmas disappointment from first time-feature director Seth Gordon is a preachy and clichéd lump of coal.
Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon are Brad and Kate. They have what appears to be a very happy non-married relationship that has been going for three years. When they’re Christmas Day flight to Fiji is cancelled, the two are pulled into going to each of their parents’ houses for Christmas. Because they have divorced parents, that equals four Christmases. Naturally, each of the four family get-togethers is dysfunctional beyond belief, and unfunny comedic vignettes ensue.
It’s the classic case of a singular cute seedling of an idea on paper not thriving on film. As long as the actors were available (a surprisingly top-flight collection that includes Sissy Spacek, Robert Duvall, Jon Voight and Mary Steenburgen), this movie could’ve been made in a couple days. It’s like a TV Christmas special where everyone reads their lines while doing walk-on cameos. Clearly, director Gordon is hoping that laughs get generated from that familiar Vince Vaughn banter, but for that he needs funnier written situations. Meanwhile, poor Reese Witherspoon doesn’t get one supposed-to-be-funny line.
Beyond the lack of laughs, the film delivers a befuddling and wrong-headed Christmas message. Apparently, we’re to believe that these two only think they are happy and enjoying life, when what they really want and need is to spend more time with family. So how does this work if one’s family is dysfunctional to the point of violence as seems quite possible at Brad’s dad’s house. And guess what else? It turns out babies are the real gift of joy. Babies have become the latest Hollywood deus ex machina.
In the end, we are given the gift of no laughs, wrong-headed preaching (at one point from a dad who un-ironically has had multiple divorces) and clichéd storytelling. But even more remarkable is how a movie could take two of the most appealing actors working in Hollywood today and make them so unappealing. Yes, this may be the most amazing Christmas miracle of all.
Poor comedy • PG-13 • 89 mins.
The dramatic encounter keeps us glued to our seats, wondering how it will all come to be.
reviewed by Jonathan Parker
TV personality David Frost interviews former President Richard M. Nixon in what becomes an important event in American history in the superb bio-drama Frost/Nixon. Director Ron Howard’s (A Beautiful Mind; Apollo 13) melodramatic Hollywood touches can’t stand in the way of the riveting subject matter and two spellbinding performances.
In 1974, British TV vagabond David Frost (Michael Sheen) is hosting a lightweight variety show in Australia. When struck by the TV ratings of President Nixon’s resignation, Frost gets the idea to revive his career in the states by scoring the first post-presidential TV interview of Nixon. Nixon (Frank Langella) too has a keen interest in such a project: It would be an opportunity to set the record straight as he sees it and to get paid a few hundred grand in the process. What follows is the set up to a 1977 TV interview that almost doesn’t happen, the interview itself actually a series of interviews and its profound climactic moment.
Director Howard adds too many storytelling gimmicks to the film, which is based on the critically acclaimed stage play by Peter Morgan, who also wrote this screenplay. Howard’s misguided direction keeps this very good film from being truly great. Most annoying is the use of to-camera interviews of the other players in the story. Not only do the outside players distract from the real drama between Frost and Nixon, but alsothey make remarks of the in case you didn’t understand the historic significance of what you just saw, let me explain it to you as if you were a 12-year-old variety.
We do not need Howard’s cheap plot devices to explain the subject matter to us. Indeed, it is precisely this clearly dramatic subject matter that propels everything forward and keeps us glued to our seats, wondering how it will all come to be. We know Nixon goes down, but how we get there is an unfolding mystery.
Howard’s best decision is to keep on the two non-movie star leads from the play. Sheen as Frost and Langella as Nixon are a joy from the moment we first meet them, and they only get better as the movie rolls forward. When Nixon starts to crack, it’s a fine line for an actor between melodramatic schmaltz and emotional power. Langella pulls it off brilliantly, with every Nixonian face tic and eye glower evoking the destruction of this tragic figure. Awards will be coming.
Very good drama • R • 122 mins.