Sometimes people ask my opinion about stuff. I like that. Saves me the trouble of trying to get their attention through shouting and stick-pokery.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall
Dominated by writer/star Jason Segel, FSM is a one-man show. You’ll forgive it because he’s really funny – but basically it’s like the Cleveland Cavaliers of comedy movies. Gay sports analogies aside, the most impressive thing about Segel is that he’s not just funny, he’s funny in service of the story.
The plot is pretty standard: Segel’s character, a composer for a Law and Order-type show gets dumped by his long-time girlfriend, the show’s star (Kristen Bell). On the advice of his brother (Bill Hader), he takes a vacation to Hawaii to forget about her. Through the magic of Hollywood, she happens to be already booked at the very same resort with her new pretentious British rockstar boyfriend, Aldous Snow (Russell Brand).
Within that basic framework, Segel proves he has a talent for making you laugh while still allowing his character to feel like a real person. He’s not, say, Adam Sandler playing a Mossad agent or a Mike Myers foreigner – he doesn’t need to be the movie, and yet he’s still its driving force. Two of the funniest scenes involve Segel getting dumped while naked (full frontal male nudity included), and Segel performing songs from his musical, written from the point of view of Dracula (and sung in Dracula’s accent). Segel completely takes over both scenes but he manages to make them feel honest rather than hammy – there’s a nice push-pull between laughing with him and laughing at him. Being comfortable with your own vulnerability and making it work for you takes both brass balls and a light touch – a rare combo.
The story, wisely, doesn’t waste much time setting up a premise we’ve already accepted. In 15 minutes or so, we’re already in Hawaii. But once we get there, the supporting characters we meet are mostly a bust.
Too many minor characters feel like they came from the stock comedy character catalog. The enormous but benevolent Hawaiian guy, the fat wisecracking black guy from the ghetto, Paul Rudd as the stoner surf instructor, Jonah Hill as the waiter and obsessive Aldous Snow fan – Rudd and Hill are talented enough to turn lemons into lemonade, but the kooky supporting cast feels like the vestigial remnants of crappier movies (50 First Dates, for instance). The worst is Jack McBrayer playing the same annoying virgin weirdo he plays on 30 Rock who’s as unfunny as he is unlikable. Even if I liked Kenneth from 30 Rock (which I don’t, at all), I’d be wondering what Kenneth was doing in Hawaii and why he had a different name. Was this some cross-promo scheme? Either way, lame.
Among the bit players the only real bright spot is British comedian Russell Brand as Aldous Snow, the new boyfriend. It would’ve been easy to turn Snow into a boneheaded, self-serious cliché, and we still would’ve laughed at his band Infant Sorrow and their exhortations (via music video) to “fight back against violence” and “sodomize intolerance”. But when Snow turns out to be fairly likable and his buffoonery is occasionally tinged with real wisdom, it’s a pleasant surprise. Just like in real life, sadly, not every guy your girlfriend dates after you turns out to be a complete prick.
A tanned and sexy (never was a fan before, but she’s looking good here) Mila Kunis (from That 70s Show and Family Guy) is decent as Segel’s new love interest, the hotel reservations manager. She’s not quite a fully fleshed out character, but she’s not the one-dimensional sexy tomboy male fantasy you’d normally see either. She’s imperfect, which is nice, but not quite imperfect in a believable, consistent way either.
Kunis is certainly more successful than Kristen Bell, who looks the part of the catty and self-absorbed (but not quite heartless or psychotic) actress ex, but she can’t seem to stay in character for a whole scene.
Faults aside, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is Segel’s show and he doesn’t disappoint. He mostly lets the laughs flow organically from the script and is able to maintain your interest during the inevitable late second/third act lull in which most Hollywood comedies forget themselves and decide that after plying you with dick jokes it’s time to teach you a life lesson.
No real life lessons here, unless you’re a famous comedy actor – take a cue from Segel , who’s confident enough not to hide behind an outlandish character and has enough self-awareness not to burden you with excess emotional baggage.
For a movie that blows a lot of its best jokes in the trailer, Baby Mama is surprisingly plot driven. We know from the previews that career-driven executive Tina Fey and her T-shaped uterus will meet up with white trash babymaker Amy Poehler and hijinks will ensue, but writer/director Michael McCuller’s (first time director, long time SNL and SNL-movie writer) script actually has a few twists and turns that you wouldn’t expect. It’s impressive – at least until the ending, which you can see coming from twelve blocks away.
Baby Mama is essentially a run-of-the-mill story with a super-talented cast and some well-executed gags. Amy Poehler peeing in Tina Fey’s sink and Amy Poehler smashing Tina Fey’s ex-boyfriend’s car with a trashcan would’ve had me rolling had I not seen them in the previews. And even though they were ruined, I had to appreciate the spot-on timing and coordination between stars, director, and editor. Comedy veterans like Fey know that good gags take precise execution, and they make gold out of scenes that would’ve been eye-roll inducing in the hands of some rom-com schmuck.
Likewise, you couldn’t ask for a better cast. Besides Fey and Poehler, Steve Martin is perfect as the ponytailed CEO of Fey’s organic food company who rewards her with “five minutes of uninterrupted eye contact.” Sigourney Weaver is equally solid as Chaffee Bicknell, the aging (yet pregnant) president of the surrogacy agency where Fey finds Poehler. “I’m expecting,” says Weaver, to which Poehler responds, “Expecting what, a social security check?”
I suspect former SNL head writer Tina Fey’s influence in the social security line. And also in Poehler’s response when Fey tells her to start eating organic: “Why? That stuff’s for rich people that hate themselves.”
Overall, the commitment of the actors, and dialogue that’s just edgy enough turn what could’ve been a pretty mediocre buddy comedy into something special, or at least something you wouldn’t abort.