Wrong as it is to objectify the male body, I’ll make an exception for that of Jason Segel in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. As anyone presold on the aptly classified ”romantic disaster comedy” probably already knows, the writer and star appears quite emphatically naked, from all angles, very early in the game: As struggling L.A. musician Peter Bretter, he’s first seen toweling off at home, anticipating the arrival of his girlfriend of the title (Kristen Bell), a TV star in the magnificently named CSI-like hit series Crime Scene: Scene of the Crime. Peter is feeling frisky, but Sarah, very much the perky media professional, is feeling fed up with the guy after nearly six years of using him as a handbag-holding service at red-carpet events, and has a breakup on her agenda. It’s a credit both to the vulnerability of the dumpee (and his refusal to make the business any easier for the dumper) as well as to Segel’s love of the hilarity of discomfort that Peter remains altogether in the altogether throughout the kiss-off. Shocked and pleading for a hug from his departing blond cutie, his exposed man flesh looks all the more alien and ungainly when pressed up against his about-to-be-ex’s clothed, compact form. Nakedness has rarely looked so…naked. And innately, universally comic.
As embodiments go, the Segel physique, a long, pale, uncooked dinner roll of a shape, is an apt one for the attractions of this very funny, very chewy, partially undercooked comedy. Indeed, with even more ferocity of purpose and Andy Kaufman-school fearlessness than that roly-poly Seth Rogen in Knocked Up or noodly-oodly Christopher Mintz-Plasse in Superbad, Segel embraces the destiny of male anatomy in yet another clever creation from the Judd Apatow Alumni Association; this one, too, speaks from the male heart (and other parts) in a language accessible to females. Yet it does so with a fresh yeastiness I haven’t already seen in other Apatovian products. The droopy physical doughiness of the hero (and his fearless creator), with his hangdog posture and flatfooted walk, is key to his unlikely attractiveness. He’s not a nerd, not a commitmentphobe, not an adult virgin in need of special handling or a stripling looking for experience. He’s just a less-than-ab-toned man of pleasant musical talents (his dream project is a musical about Count Dracula, with puppets) and recognizable neuroses, at least temporarily on the wrong end of the relationship equation.
And he’s got the breakup blues bad. Peter sobs, drinks, has meaningless sex (after which he sobs some more), screws up at work, and falls apart. And thus ”girlified,” with all the expressed neediness more traditionally ascribed to the touchier-feelier sex, he takes the advice of his intermittently apoplectic married step-brother (indispensable SNL player Bill Hader) to take a healing vacation in Hawaii, where flesh goes for braising. What are the odds that Sarah would be there too, at the same resort, accompanied by her new dude, a beaded, bangled, and tattooed British rocker with the perfect Blighty name of Aldous Snow (Russell Brand)? One hundred percent.
A dark-haired new woman helps Peter forget Sarah Marshall; she’s a cat-eyed beauty named Rachel (Mila Kunis) who works at the hotel and is as magically unpretentious, easygoing, and attracted to the hurtin’ Peter as Sarah is brittle and duplicitous. (In fact, Bell, from Veronica Mars and Heroes, is excellent playing the tricky role of Hardass Girl to Kunis’ more sympathetic Softshoulder Girl.) But Forgetting Sarah Marshall really does forget Sarah Marshall, or at least puts her in perspective — her and all the Sarahs who mess with the heads of their Peters. For better, and sometimes for worse, first-time director Nicholas Stoller (yet another graduate of the Undeclared Academy — will any feature-comedy maker today who isn’t please step forward?) lets the action shamble along, as Segel and his co-conspirators riff on varieties of male bewilderment. 30 Rock’s Jack McBrayer plays up his rube-at-the-luau skills as a virginal newlywed who can’t figure out which end of his lusty new wife (Maria Thayer) is up; Paul Rudd is priceless (yep, as ever) as a stoner surfer; Jonah Hill has a small, excellently cringe-inducing role as a suck-up to Aldous’ rock godliness. Jawing about pop culture with typical School of Judd razor wit, these men might be giants. The rest of the time, they’re merely hilariously mortal. B+