Lost in the quasi-backlash against Knocked Up and its questionable procreative politics was Judd Apatow’s greater artistic crime as writer/director/producer/comedy godhead: his unabashed conformity, a middlebrowization of potentially subversive humor for the purposes of white, upper-middle-class hegemony. Apatow has mastered the juggling of bathroom jokes, pop culture references and a reliably goofy farm team of talent — but so what, if they’re merely in the service of the continual cultural takeover by “mature” frat-house guys, the ones savvy enough to have parlayed their mediocrity and sold it back as a coveted way of life.
Not that I’m so above it. I’ve found myself readily laughing at Knocked Up and even for the first time enjoying the trailer to an Adam Sandler film, the Apatow-co-written You Don’t Mess With the Zohan — but the morning after always comes when confronting Apatow’s insidiousness in quick retrospect. Thus far, Apatow’s brilliantly played this game, but one wonders how long he can keep it up, and if the culture will ultimately outrun him. Somewhere the Farrelly Brothers are watching.
In this respect Forgetting Sarah Marshall is the least troublesome product to emerge from the Apatow factory (his role here: producer). Forsaking the heavy baggage of Knocked Up, it instead throws down this gauntlet: why bother with retro screwballs like Leatherheads when a real and un-nostalgic brand of the genre sit unpretentiously in front of you? Working in pure formula, newcomer Nicholas Stoller directs Apatow regular Jason Segel (channeling vintage Judge Reinhold in his own script) as Peter Bretter, a soundtrack composer and typical shlub who gets dumped by Kristen Bell’s titular glamorous actress (from a terrifically spoofed version of CSI). Peter tries to escape his troubles by traveling to Hawaii, only to run into — bet you didn’t see this coming — Sarah Marshall and new British rock star boyfriend Aldous Snow (Russell Brand).
Hilarity, indeed, ensues as Peter battles through various moments of awkwardness, but it’s Segel’s generous apportioning of punchlines among a loaded supporting cast that wins the day: Jonah Hill as a Snow-worshipping ambiguously gay maitre d’ (dreamily watching the singer croon an overtly sexual ballad: “I just went from six to midnight”), Paul Rudd as a too-blissed-out surfboarding instructor (“When life gives you lemons, just say ‘Fuck the lemons,’ and bail”) and Jack McBrayer as a sexual naïf on honeymoon. But the real scene-stealer is Brand, pitch-perfect as an unflappably self-absorbed lothario whose ridiculousness (“Sodomize Intolerance,” goes a musical message) is offset by genuine, multiple dimensions.
But for all Forgetting’s bench player contributions and dependable explicitness — Segel bares himself in several brief nude shots, while the film’s best bit is a competitive sex scene of exaggerated groans and shrieks — Peter and love interest Rachel (Mila Kunis) disappointingly form just one more bland, male-oriented rom-com couple. In the old screwballs the men and women sparred on an equal ground of wit; here they match because of their same apologetic dull “normality.” True, he gets one redeeming quirk (writing a puppet musical version of the Dracula story: “Die. Die. Die. I can’t.”), but Peter’s is really the unremarkable and superfluously reiterated tale of the nice white guy getting his groove back via the love of an(other) undefined hottie. “Would you stop being so sensitive?” his muse suggests for purposes of vague character development. Let’s move on, shall we?