Nicholas Stoller’s “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

This review originally appeared as a guest post on 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective, a film site in which editor Marcus Gorman and various contributors revisit a movie on the week of its tenth anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual.

This time in 2008, I was studying abroad in Moscow. It was easy to see American movies dubbed in Russian, but there were only a handful of options for viewing them in their original language, and the only one I’m sure was totally kosher was a tiny theater attached to an international business hotel that I didn’t learn about until my last month there. So I saw two films, twice each: Iron Man and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. These films were each enjoyable in their own right (and I’ll be covering the other one for 10YA in a couple of weeks), but they also hold a special place in my heart for being the most high-quality taste of home that I enjoyed while I was across the pond. An American superhero film (that would end up launching a cinematic universe), and a sudden expansion of my interest in the comedic chops of Jason Segel, whom I’d only seen previously in a recurring role as an overbearing boyfriend in the short-lived Judd Apatow series Undeclared (which also introduced the likes of Jay Baruchel and Seth Rogen). Given the subject matter of this film, I considered the possibility that Segel may just be uniquely suited for this particular character (which would later be confirmed by my obsessive viewing of How I Met Your Mother). Segel plays the occasionally self-loathing man-child who wears his heart on his sleeve (and occasionally, bears his entire soul – and naked body – for the camera). The opening montage is almost a Children of Men-level class in speedy plausible exposition. As Cake’s “Love You Madly” plays, Peter Bretter (Segel) flexes his pecs in the mirror, literally congratulates himself, then proceeds to eat a gargantuan mixing bowl of Froot Loops while watching Billy Bush on the E! channel explain that his girlfriend Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell) is an actress on a popular SVU-type show (Crime Scene: Scene of the Crime), for which Peter composes the musical score. A bevvy of personalized calendars and mugs and other crap showcase the insufferability of their long-term couplehood, as the E! channel charges on. The next story is about Aldous Snow (Russell Brand), a Bonoesque do-gooder lothario with a content-free, feel-good environmental anthem called “Do Something” which plays as Peter frantically cleans up his apartment and showers (for a second time?) before Sarah gets home. I’ll go ahead and say in advance: All of the original songs in this film are outstanding, and they’re one of the major reasons why I was so pleased to see the Snow character return in Get Him to the Greek. Sarah leads off with, “Peter, as you know, I love you…very much.” He immediately realizes what’s up, and drops his towel in panic. Now it’s time for the naked breakup scene, and Bell and Segel absolutely nail it – this is the perfect mix of awkwardness and familiarity that comes of a long-term couple quarreling. Sarah has already decided that the breakup is a done deal, but she still cares about his feelings. Peter is still acting like this is a snap decision that he can maybe, possibly, desperately talk her out of. Peter leans in for a close hug (again, she is the only one wearing clothes). Sarah gets a pained expression on her face during the naked embrace, as if she’s briefly, painfully enjoying it one last time before revealing…that there’s someone else. She’s been cheating on him. And she tearfully departs.

The next scene finds Peter with his brother Brian (Bill Hader), showcasing his pain and trying desperately to find a stranger to have sex with. He puts some very awkward moves on – holy lord, is that June Diane Raphael? – and then we flash forward to the pair of them in post-coital bliss. He flashes back to happy times with Sarah (more on this later), and cries. We see several more of these dubious hookups (including one with Carla Gallo, also from Undeclared, who offers to let him gag her). And next we’re in the studio, where Peter is scoring Crime Scene, and proceeds to freak out and bust several gashes into the projection screen with a music stand. As a friend of several former movie theater employees, I happen to know this is several thousand dollars’ worth of vandalism. The producer assures him he’s not getting paid for the day. Later, Brian checks in with Peter, who is burning Sarah-memorabilia, and starts with “Look, Look, Liz and I, we think the world of Sarah…”, before kindly suggesting that Sarah was “always acted, you know, like a little bitch”. Peter nearly cries before pushing back hard in defense of his ex, insulting Brian’s wife, and Hader’s ensuing monologue (“I have no qualms with stickin’ you!”) is thoroughly quotable. With the exception of the music-stand freakout, is all pretty classic post-breakup stuff. For people hung up on their exes, their friends and family serve a singular role – to try and help them move on, even as they’re stupidly trying to live in the past… And also not push too hard, because these idiots might get back together like idiots, and it’ll be awkward if you said too many horrible things about their prior relationship before that happens. Having been on both sides of this exchange during my 20s, I can relate. Anyway, Brian suggests that Peter take a vacation, and Peter decides to go to Hawaii (to an Oahu resort that Sarah told him about).

And now comes the character that drew me to writing this as a 10YA review: Rachel Jansen (Mila Kunis). At the time, praised Kunis’ performance in my year-end awards, describing her as follows:

“I’m surprised to be putting Mila Kunis on a best actress list, being that I only knew her previously as that hot, dumb girl from That ’70s Show. Jason Segel’s script casts Rachel as his version of the perfect rebound girl. The wrong spin on this character could have turned Rachel into the random front-desk hottie (a role that anyone could’ve believed Kunis in), but her performance completely elevates this character.”

Ouch. As I’ve previously noted, my standards for female characters have grown up a bit in the past decade, and I realize now that calling someone “the perfect rebound girl”, even as a conceptual description, is – at minimum – damning with faint praise. Will this character, and Kunis’ performance, hold up? Or was I just praising a character who was designed to be an object of shallow and situational appeal? After rewatching the film, I have an answer: Rachel is still a good character, and this is still a good performance. There is a lot of depth to Rachel that we plumb over the course of the film, but what really elevates her is the character’s level of self-awareness, and the script’s level of self-awareness about who and what she is. Rachel works in customer service, so much of her politeness and cheer toward Peter is simply what’s expected of her as a condition of her employment – and the same behavior that we see repeatedly her exhibit toward other random guests. But she lets her humanity slip through immediately during their first interaction, as Sarah approaches the desk, and Peter confesses that to her that Sarah is his ex-girlfriend, and they just broke up three weeks ago. And all of a sudden, what was purely a transactional interaction becomes a real human moment between the two of them. Rachel responds by not only covering for him, but also doing the utterly insane thing of comping him the $6,000-per-night Kapua Suite for 4 nights. She does him this kindness because – even having just met him – she thinks it’s pretty fucked up that Sarah is already at the resort with some other guy. That guy, of course, is Aldous Snow, one of the best parts of this film. More on him later.

And so the zany sitcom premise of the film is set: Peter is vacationing at the resort where his ex-girlfriend is shacked up with the guy she was cheating on him with. And the film really piles it on in the next scene, as Matthew the Waiter (Jonah Hill) sets Peter up at a table at the hotel restaurant…right next to Sarah and Aldous. An awkward and hostile chat ensues, and Sarah icily tells him that she hopes he has a really good time, and he should stay. And lo, Peter hits the bar and gets hammered. He meets his new vacation-friends: Dwayne the Bartender (Da’Vone McDonald) and Darald, a recent ex-virgin newlywed (Jack McBrayer). Rachel shows up and mocks him a bit for crying in his room, and sweetly tells him that Sarah’s show sucks. Smash-cut to Peter in his room, playing a drunken (and prescient) rendition of The Muppet Show theme. A double breakfast-cocktail later, Peter hits the beach for a surfing lesson with Kunu (né Chuck) (Paul Rudd). Chuck gives him a series of fairly useless pointers that he go against his instincts and do nothing. As a veteran of several years of snowboarding and exactly one surfing lesson, I can relate to this nonsense. If you’re considering surfing, just know that your arms and shoulders will be noodles before you’re done, and it’s 80% paddling and 20% falling off your board. But Chuck is at least good for a few quotable knowledge-bombs. “If life gives you lemons, just say ‘fuck the lemons!’ and bail.” Sure, Paul.

Peter has a Skype call with Brian and his wife Liz. Let me just pause here and note: Movies in 2008 still treated video chats as some sort of wild, magical future tech, and accordingly, cinematic depictions of these were always A) faked, and B) 100% clear, hi-res, and latency-free. In the ensuing decade, Skype (or Facetime or Hangouts, if you will) are essentially just as crappy as they were then, and I’m officially annoyed by this fakery. This is some good improv, but oof – the tech did not age well. But Liz encourages Peter to ask out Rachel. Peter hits the hotel luau and compliments Rachel’s dress, but chickens out before going any further. Then Matthew the Waiter pulls a move that would absolutely, 100% get a resort employee fired in real life: he calls out Aldous Snow and asks him to come up on-stage and sing them a song. Snow obliges (after briefly whinging that “this is like work for me…”, which – it is). Then he performs a downright invasive sex ballad called “Inside You“. Quick aside here. For the past decade, including during the most recent viewing, I understood the first two lines of this song to be,

“Oh, these ancient skies,
Avec these wandering eyes…”

Avec is French for “with”, and it seemed in keeping with Aldous Snow to randomly drop in a word of French just to sound très chic. But it turns out I was wrong. The actual lyric is something even more insipid:

“Old as Ancient Skies,
I’ve had these wandering eyes”

Old. As Ancient Skies. Aldous Snow is a sex poet.

Peter wanders off to cry on the beach, and makes another vacation-friend, Kemo (Taylor Wily), a tower of a man (the actor was a sumo wrestler for three years) who informs him that the whole resort knows about the Sarah Marshall situation (since he won’t shut up about it). Kemo offers him a hug, then invites him to help the kitchen staff slaughter a pig for the night’s luau. Peter goes through with it while weeping profusely. This is one of many rapid-fire escalations of violence in the film (a weirdly common trope in 2000s comedy), and while this sort of beat is hit-or-miss for me, they all pretty much land here. Butchering an animal apparently stoked Peter’s courage, and he charges off to ask out Rachel. And she’s into it! She invites him to a nighttime beach party, he starts some awkward back-and-forth over whether or not it’s a date, and she tells him it’s all good – you either want to go or you don’t, now just change your shirt and come on. There’s an awkward beat as he realizes his shirt (which is somehow not covered in pig blood) sucks, but on the other hand, Rachel telling him to change his shirt is a total girlfriend move! But…then they’re on the beach together, so whatever.

They chat (alone) about what brought her to Oahu from the mainland – the answer is a surfer dude who ended up cheating on her. Now she’s in a hospitality career rut that she doesn’t feel any urgent need to resolve. They discuss his career – and she immediately cottons onto the fact that he hates his job as the composer for Crime Scene. This is teetering on the edge of Manic Pixie Dream Girl territory, but honestly, they both sell this level of untoward familiarity with their performances. She can tell he hates it because…he’s making it obvious that he hates it. Peter then pitches the film’s finale, a Dracula puppet musical that will ultimately serve as Segel’s (and director Nicholas Stoller’s) audition for The Muppets. This was apparently a real-life passion project of Segel’s that predated this film by a decade, and all I can say is, I’m so happy that this made it into the film. In the same way that 2008’s Role Models ends with an epic LARPing battle between cosplaying elves and wizards, comedy is best when it it incorporates the kind of weird, fun real-world stuff that comedians and theatre people [read: nerds] are into. I know a lot of people in this community in Seattle, and while they’re hardly monolithic with their interests, I can assure you there are few among them who wouldn’t be excited by the words “Dracula puppet musical”. No people like show people.

“Why Dracula?”, Rachel asks.
“Because he’s a man like anyone else,” says Peter, “He just wants to be loved. And every time he gets close to a human woman, he ends up smothering and killing her, which is a feeling…I am familiar with.”

Rachel doesn’t respond, and instead puts on a thousand-yard stare as she realizes her ex is walking toward them on the beach, and a hilarious, foul-mouthed group melee ensues, complete with Peter getting sucker-punched in the face by the cocktail waiter from the breakfast buffet, because everyone on this island knows each other, and they all work at the same resort. Rachel and Peter – who are now absolutely, 100% on a date – end up at a tiki bar, Lazy Joe’s, where the men’s room includes a wall of photos of topless women, Rachel among them. “I hate it so much,” she says bemusedly, “[My ex] made me do it.” Which is…a minor plot hole, I suppose? Whether or not she thinks this is a date, I’m not sure why Rachel would bring Peter to this bar, knowing what awaits him as soon as he heads off to pee. But whatever. Chekhov’s wall tit photo will be important later. At Rachel’s urging (and public volunteering), Peter steps onstage and plays a song from his Dracula puppet musical, and it’s amazing. Back in the car at the resort, a debate ensues as to whether or not this was a date. Peter’s opening statement is to say he had a really good time and lean in for a goodnight kiss. Rachel’s rebuttal is to skillfully dodge, telling him she doesn’t want to complicate things. Rachel wins. Every single one of Peter’s vacation-friends at the bar agree, including Dwayne the Bartender, who flat-out tells Peter that Rachel works in customer service, took him out for charity, and that he probably thinks strippers like him too. All of this works nicely. It’s pretty clear to me as an audience member that Rachel is crossing some personal lines here that go beyond customer service. But at the same time, Peter and his friends are wise to have a bit of humility about the whole situation, because not only is he fresh out of a relationship and in possession of some very poor judgment, but Rachel is a resort employee, and he is hitting on her at work. Play. It. Cool.

The next day, Peter runs into Sarah and she shares some news: Crime Scene has been canceled. She initially repeats the same line of peppy bullshit that she had fed to Aldous: that this is what she wanted, that she’s been waiting for the right moment to break into features, etc. Peter tells her this isn’t The View, and they can have an honest conversation about this if she wants. She confesses that she’s pretty freaked out and afraid of being forgotten if she steps out of the spotlight. Bell really sells this moment – perhaps because the actress went through something similar post-Veronica Mars – but also because it’s once again immediately clear that these two used to be a couple, and are still in each other’s heads and can speak frankly when needed. Buying the intimate history of these two is a huge part of why this movie works so well, and these actors repeatedly pull it off. Bravo. A few more amusing, rapid-fire comedy moments ensue – a crass Skype chat with Brian and Liz, Aldous giving sex lessons to Newlywed Darald with some giant chesspieces (and honestly, Aldous seems like someone who gives unsolicited sex tips to everyone he meets, so Darald has picked a natural tutor).

Peter greets Rachel at the front desk, and she asks him out to Lazy Joe’s. He responds awkwardly (thinking things were still romantically ambiguous between them), but instead invites her out to hike at Laie Point, which…Rachel has heard it’s a pain-in-the-ass, but she leaves the desk to go do immediately? What exactly is her work schedule? Whatever. They wander up to the cliff’s edge overlooking the surf, and have a romantic moment. Rachel asks whether he’s going to finish the Dracula musical now that his TV show is kaput. He says he’s not sure. Then he attempts to relate to her breakup situation, suggesting that she hurt just like she was, and perhaps that’s why she hasn’t gone back to school. But maybe it’s good that they were hurt like that, he suggests. “Like there’s nothing left to be afraid of?” she asks. Again, these two are being excessively familiar with each other, but it works in that rom-com sort of way, since they’re both crossing each other’s personal lines at about the same pace. Anyway, it’s all leading up to them both jumping off the cliff, as we know they will. She tells him (metaphorically) to jump, and that he’ll be fine. He leans in for a kiss approximately 12 hours after previously being declined, and she…jumps off the cliff into the water. He flips out, botches his own jump, then (after much frantic coaching from below) leapfrogs off the rock. Nice editing note here: While the music is remaining rather tense throughout this, the moment he leaps, we get a quick shot of Rachel cackling in the water. We know he’s made it. The tension is defused and we can chill out for a second or two before they swim up to each other and share an adrenaline-fueled kiss. As I watched this, I thought the actors had done the jump for real, but…nope. Stunt doubles. I should mention, however, one of the other things I’ve done in the past decade is get married, and while on my honeymoon in Hawaii, I did perform two similar jumps (one from an oceanside cliff, one from a waterfall into a freshwater pool), partially inspired by this movie. It’s great fun, although like Peter, I only did each one after watching someone else survive it first.

The next day, Kemo wakes Peter up to tell him he’s being booted from the Kapua Suite for then 14-year-old Dakota Fanning and her entourage (which is kind of a hilarious image), but that they’ve found him another room. And…more sitcom hilarity ensues, as it’s the room right next door to Sarah and Aldous. Sarah goes to the front desk to inquire about a sushi place (Rachel responds purely in customer-service mode), and then the two share a bit of intense dialogue about Rachel keeping Peter company (and also about who’s prettier). This whole interaction is a bit odd, and Sarah completes the scene crying. Rachel clearly “wins” the moment, but she also intensely exhales, realizing what an awkward work-life knot she’s tied herself into. Meanwhile, Peter runs into Aldous on a surfboard, and Aldous reveals that he’s heard one of the Dracula tracks amid the “interminable dross” on Sarah’s iPod, and says it reminds him of “a dark, gothic Neil Diamond”. Peter shudders as he realizes he likes Aldous, despite hating him on so many levels. And Aldous casually reveals that he was sleeping with Sarah for a year while she was with Peter. Peter has a tantrum and splashes Aldous until he paddles away, and then proceeds to catch a wave and crash directly back into him, impaling his leg on some coral. Peter passes out, and the trio wakes up in Sarah’s hotel room, with Aldous sleeping off some anesthesia. And now it’s time for some real talk.

This scene is magnificent, because up until this point, Sarah has been the villain of this romance. She cheated! She dumped him. This breakup is her fault and how dare she! But the fundamental truth that this scene highlights is that while every breakup has a concrete list of relationship crimes that can be pinned on either party (and a yearlong affair is a big one), no relationship ever dissolves in a way that’s completely one party’s fault. It takes two…to stop a tango? Sarah initially tries to spare Peter’s feelings, then finally lets him have it.

“Fine. Cutting the bullshit. It got really hard to keep taking care of you…when you stopped taking care of yourself. I tried to get you out of the house. I tried to get you off your little island you loved so much, the couch. You didn’t wanna see the light of day…”

“I’m sorry that I didn’t end up being who we thought I was gonna be, you know? I think if you had just, maybe tried harder.”

“I TRIED. You have no idea how hard I tried, Peter. I talked to a therapist. I talked to my mother. I read every book possible. I took love seminars. I took sex seminars. None of it worked. None of it made a difference to you. And I couldn’t drown with you anymore.

Don’t you dare sit there and tell me that I didn’t try. I did. You were just too stupid to notice.”

Bell’s performance is merciless in this scene, and what’s clear, as with all asymmetrical breakups, is that Sarah has had plenty of time to reflect on how dysfunctional their relationship was becoming even as she was seeding its dissolution. Meanwhile, Peter is scrambling to figure out where it went wrong after years of apathy and neglect that he clearly didn’t bother reflecting on until this moment. He hid inside his bitterness and jealousy and used it as an excuse not to examine his own behavior. We only saw hints of this at the beginning (the giant bowl of cereal and TV-binging), but as I hear Sarah’s assessment of Peter, and watch her words strike his face like a hammer as he stays silent, I know she’s speaking the truth. These two shouldn’t be together anymore. But they both made this breakup happen.

They could just part as friends and go figure their own shit out, but this wouldn’t be the rom-com classic that it is without some proper self-destruction. So the two couples head out to dinner at the only restaurant at the resort, and naturally run into each other. Peter casually invites Sarah and Aldous to join their table, and before either of their dates can object, Sarah accepts the invitation. Aldous muses in disbelief – “This is actually happening. We’re going to let…this…happen”. The four proceed to have a fourth-wall-breaking argument that seems to be about the movie Pulse (about a murderous cell phone), which Bell actually starred in, and is – as the characters agree – a terrible horror film. Then the party gets hammered (minus Aldous, who is 7 years sober), and Aldous preaches about the merits of casual sex (which he literally describes as “Lose yourself in fuck”), and a very drunk Sarah starts biting him with withering sarcasm. Peter and Rachel are making eyes the whole time (and miming mockery of Aldous’ endless repartée), and end up flirting over a slice of chocolate cake. And then it gets a bit nasty. I won’t recap every line here, but Aldous delivers the killing blow to Matthew the Waiter, who asks whether the rocker has gotten around to listening to the demo tape he not-so-subtlely dropped off earlier in the film (“Oh, no. I was gonna listen to that, but then I just carried on living my life.”) Ouch. Jonah Hill does a decent job with the waiter’s creepy obsession, but Matthew was literally rubbing club soda on Aldous’ crotch a moment earlier, and he should definitely be shitcanned for all of this. Meanwhile, Peter and Rachel head back to his room to have sex, and more R-rated sitcommery ensues as Sarah hears their moans of ecstasy through the wall. She wakes up Aldous for a quick sleepy romp, and proceeds to give a ridiculous, screaming performance of an orgasm. Peter and Rachel quickly yes-and this and start hollering back, and finally the only one who’s sick of this is Aldous, who pushes Sarah off him and chides her for her “ghastly performance”. They throw some more barbs at each other, and a somewhat pained Aldous says he’s leaving her in the morning.

“I hate your music,” says Sarah.
“Yeah, well, I fucked the housekeeper…the other day,” Aldous retorts, and wins. As much as I expect I’d hate Aldous in real life, he is pretty freaking cool.

Peter and Rachel have a nice moment before she leaves for work, and he proceeds to have a delightful day by himself at the resort. He runs into Aldous in the lobby and bids him farewell – and Aldous reveals that he and Sarah broke up, incepting a terrible idea into his head. And off he goes. Cut to Peter and Sarah sitting on her bed, and – I’ll cut to the chase. She says she’s made a terrible mistake and weepily throws herself at him. Clothes start coming off, and the two have some awkward breakup fellatio before he realizes this is all a mistake, and screams in her face that she’s the “goddamned devil”. This scene rang true, and it’s an unsettling parallel to their argument above. As with the breakup, it takes two to tango, and it takes two to have self-destructive breakup sex. On his way out, he screams at a wedding party for their lack of originality, then heads to the front desk to face the music. He tells Rachel that “some stuff happened” with Sarah. Kunis’ face becomes more and more intense as she demands he tell him exactly what he did. He awkwardly explains, and she sends him on his way, thanking him for staying at Turtle Bay (ouch). They have an honest moment.

“Listen to me, Peter. I was a mess, too- I understand that, okay? But it does not excuse you acting like a complete asshole…You should not be with anybody, right now. Anybody.”
“I know… I know that there is something here. I know I wasn’t wrong about that. And yes, it’s only been four days, but I know you feel it, too.”
[beat]
“I need you to leave. Do not write me, do not call me, do not email me. Peter, I need you to go.”
“I won’t bother you anymore…I’m sorry.”

Peter leaves. But first, he heads over to Lazy Joe’s and steals the topless photo of Rachel, getting his ass kicked by Joe for the trouble. He walks back in to an objecting Rachel, slaps the photo down on the front desk, then goes on his way. Rachel is visibly shocked. Her resolve is steady, but she softens a bit in spite of herself as she watches Peter hug his vacation-friends goodbye across the lobby.

Peter goes home to L.A. and has a brief funk, but then continues working on his Dracula musical. After a weeks-long creative montage, we cut back to Rachel on Oahu, receiving an invitation in the mail. No note – just a flyer. With some encouragement from Dwayne the Bartender, she appears to be considering it. The musical goes off without a hitch (including some hilarious scream-acting by Bill Hader), and of course, Rachel is in the audience. Peter and Rachel reunite afterward, and she reveals that she’s back on the mainland for good, to go back to school. There’s a bit more accidental full frontal dong, a sweet reunion kiss, and that’s the show.

What I said about this film at the time is that it has entered my canon of classic romances alongside Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. What was unclear to be until now was just how much these films had in common. Beyond merely exploring a relationship through the lens of a breakup, peppered throughout both films are flashbacks to the relationship itself as some ironic or contrasting twist occurs in the present day, reframing either moment with the benefit of hindsight. In FSM, these are mere flashes (seconds at a time), each tied to a realization. Peter realizes that Sarah never liked or understood his puppet musical. Sarah realizes Peter didn’t like any of the tacky crap she made him wear. Peter realizes he was always shuffled to the side to accommodate Sarah’s fame (“ANDRE THE GIANT: OUTTA THE SHOT, PLEASE!”). Even as we’re watching the pair of them come to terms with their breakup (which is, at its heart, what this film is about), we’re learning along with the characters exactly why their relationship didn’t work. And when their rebound blows up in their face, the audience feels every bit of it. These two don’t belong together. And even amid a lot of funny and uncomfortable stuff, here’s why. The movie also really nails a rebound romance in a way that feels human. Nobody asks to be somebody else’s rebound, and yet, anyone who dates a new person is running this risk. Some rebounds are just a distraction, some turn into the next big thing, and in either case, both people involved have lives outside of the other person’s relationship baggage. Kunis’ performance here is outstanding, but she’s not enough on her own to make this film work. That comes from just how thoroughly this film takes a madcap sitcom premise and manages to tell a weighty, emotional story of three relationships (exactly what Definitely, Maybe failed to do!) while remaining unrelentingly hilarious. This film is still a delight. And now I’m off to listen to some puppet songs.

FilmWonk rating: 8.5 out of 10

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“I Feel Pretty” (dir. Abby Kohn, Marc Silverstein) – Body-unswapping.

I Feel Pretty earns a lot of points for good intentions. It is a fundamentally well-meaning and goodhearted film, centered on a lead character, Renee (Amy Schumer) who – through the lens of magical realism – is learning a lesson about self-acceptance and self-esteem that the world could surely use more of. It’s just a shame that it used such a banal, low-stakes filter of capitalism and high fashion to tell that story. Renee works at an haute cosmetics company, Lily LeClaire (whose retired eponymous founder is played by Lauren Hutton). LeClaire’s granddaughter Avery, played by Academy Award winner Michelle Williams (along with her My Week With Marilyn voice) is taking the reins of the company as it makes a push to expand to the Target and Walmart crowd with some lower-cost makeup. And in comes Renee, who previously worked in a Chinatown basement as part of the company’s ramshackle two-person website team, who decides that her greatest dream is to work as a receptionist at the company’s Fifth Avenue skyscraper. I have a number of credulity problems with this setup, but let’s move on to Renee herself.

Renee is a woman who is deeply insecure about her appearance and body. This is illustrated in classic “show, don’t tell” fashion with an opening montage that starts with an awkward first-time sortie to SoulCycle, climaxes with a pants-ripping, vulva-bruising fall, and finishes with Renee standing in her underwear in front of the mirror (framed as an unblinking stare almost directly at the audience), nary a drop of makeup on her face, looking dejected and disgusted with herself. I’m coming at this film as a follow-on and attempted modernization of innumerable body-swapping and slapstick comedies of the turn of the century (everything from Shallow Hal to The Hot Chick) that frequently used or abused the bodies of women – especially women considered overweight or Hollywood-overweight – as comedy fodder. I’d call it a qualified success in that arena, but even as a straight drama about a woman struggling with her body image and self-esteem, Schumer also performs admirably in this film. As she debates with her friends Vivian (Aidy Bryant) and Jane (Busy Phillips) about the efficacy of profile details in online dating (which they’re somehow doing as a trio) as opposed to merely taking a sufficiently hot profile picture, it feels like the film is posturing, certainly, but it also feels like a genuine expression from Renee’s experience through Schumer’s sincerity. Online dating is a frustrating experience until the moment it isn’t, and it’s something women and others alike bitch to their friends about. Fair enough.

And then Renee smacks her head. Really hard, during a second fall at SoulCycle (which is getting a lot of injuries in return for its product placement buck). And suddenly, she is suffering from a traumatic delusion that she has transformed into a gorgeous, unrecognizable version of herself. To be clear, Schumer is still playing Renee at this point – there is no actual body-swap happening here. But the film essentially acts like a body-swapping movie from this point on, with Amy acting like the “hot chick” that she now sees in herself, and the world delivering some impressive (but not, like, The Secret-level) return on her confidence. She gets a new boyfriend, Ethan (Rory Scovel), and of course she gets the new job at Lily LeClaire, because she wanders into the lobby-adjacent conference room where Avery the CEO does all her most important work in full view of the public, and decides that she has to have it. To be fair, she offers a few tangible pointers on what “real women” will think of Lily LeClaire’s new product line, soon to be slumming it at the big box stores – but this is essentially a simplified version of the fictionalized Vogue from The Devil Wears Prada  – literally everyone working at this place is a model, and she’s the fish-out-of-water amongst them. And on that note, let’s cut back to reality for a second.

Lily LeClaire is a ridiculous company. It is possible that between The Devil Wears Prada and certain, other family-owned real-world companies headquartered on Fifth Avenue (and/or Pennsylvania Avenue), I’m simply unprepared to believe that this collection of Manhattan elitists perched amid the stacks of pane glass and oozing, gaudy pastels could be led by anyone other than a high-functioning sociopath. This is high fashion and high finance. These people have investors to answer to, marketing teams and focus groups that don’t bend to personal whims or hunches, and even if they didn’t, these people grew up among New York’s pampered elite, and they aren’t “just like us”. And for a movie to not only breathlessly argue that the opposite is true, but also stake its entire emotional climax on it, was such a severe leap from reality that I almost dismissed the movie for it. There’s one fictional person that ultimately prevented me from doing so, and that was Tony Stark. Because if I can accept a weapons’ manufacturer CEO going on a personal journey that ended with him promising not to build weapons anymore – and in the process, become a superhero – I suppose I can accept a woman going on a journey of self-acceptance that has the minor hiccup of briefly derailing a product launch. They both exist in the same world of magical realism and wish fulfillment (in one instance, Black Widow literally resets Hawkeye by smacking him in the head), and if nothing else, the home-game version of this journey is a bit more doable than the superhero stuff. You can’t be like Iron Man, but you can certainly feel a bit better about yourself. And that’s enough complaining. In the end, the logic centers of my brain quieted to a dull roar, and I felt every note of tension as Renee persisted in her delusional hotness, with the audience faintly dreading the painful moment when the spell must break (or when someone would get Renee some medical attention, because seriously, her condition is literally a sign of dementia or traumatic brain injury okay shut up now Glenn). Because as long as she only likes her own appearance because she believes it’s been magically altered (to a standard of beauty that is equally arbitrary, cruel, and unattainable), then she doesn’t really like herself, does she? The film expends some clever dialogue in order to maximally delay this moment (including one particularly poignant scene with Boyfriend Ethan), but fundamentally, we need to see the other shoe drop. The movie doesn’t work without it.

Still from "I Feel Pretty"

And we do. I don’t mind spoiling that, because honestly, if we didn’t, then – like Shallow Hal, which ends with Jack Black pretending that he finds a literally inhuman-looking Gwyneth Paltrow in a terribly-rendered fatsuit attractive – I Feel Pretty would be a profoundly cruel and cynical exercise. For the audience, for Renee, and for the woman at SoulCycle to whom she repeatedly compares herself (real-life model Emily Ratajkowski), who has just as much right to feel dejected, unattractive, and unwanted as anyone else. For all of its flaws and oddities, this movie fundamentally understands the point it’s trying to make (even if the trailer made it look like the just the sort of material that it was trying to transcend). It ends with Schumer standing up and making a TED-talk (or Kyle from South Park)-style speech explaining what she learned today. And what she learned is, “You know what? We’re all okay.” She makes nice with her friends, she sells some cheap cosmetics, and we all go home feeling a bit nicer. The execution is a bit ridiculous, but the message really is alright.

FilmWonk rating: 6 out of 10

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #130 – “Blockers” (dir. Kay Cannon), “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” (dir. Rian Johnson)

Poster for "Blockers"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel explore a comedy about preventing teenagers from getting laid. And then, appropriately, they spend 40 minutes of their Saturday night dissecting Star Wars: The Last Jedi, a film which Glenn praised effusively back in December, and which Daniel only got around to seeing this week, and called “a solid 5 out of 10”. The spoiler warning comes right away with this one, and may the Force be with us all for the first and only time that Count Dooku will ever be mentioned on this podcast (56:52).

May contain NSFW language.

Still from "Star Wars: The Last Jedi"

FilmWonk rating (Blockers): 6.5 out of 10
FilmWonk rating (Star Wars: The Last Jedi): 8.5/10 (Glenn), 5/10 (Daniel)

Show notes:

Listen above, or download: Blockers, Star Wars: The Last Jedi (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #129 – “The Death of Stalin” (dir. Armando Iannucci), “Maktub”, “Keep the Change” (#SJFF2018)

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel are back for two outstanding selections from the Seattle Jewish Film Festival, and take a foray into In the Loop director Armando Iannucci‘s uniquely foul-mouthed and hilarious rendition of the demise of Stalin’s Russia. We are joined once again by special guest Erika Spoden (01:13:18).

May contain NSFW language.

The first round of the Seattle Jewish Film Festival closes today, but they will be back for one more weekend next month, April 14-15. For the complete schedule and tickets, head over to SJFF.

FilmWonk rating (Keep the Change): 8/10 (Glenn, Erika), 9/10 (Daniel)
FilmWonk rating (Maktub): 8 out of 10
FilmWonk rating (The Death of Stalin): 8/10 (Glenn), 9/10 (Daniel, Erika)

Show notes:

  • [01:45] Review: Keep the Change
  • [16:16] Spoilers: Keep the Change
  • [27:26] Review: Maktub
  • [42:37] Spoilers: Maktub
  • [51:53] Review: The Death of Stalin
  • These films didn’t have a lot to choose from, so music for this episode is the traditional Russian folk song, “Korobeiniki” and the Soviet National anthem.
  • It does appear that the earliest version of the “whoever saves a life saves the world” verse – which does indeed appear in the Quran (Surah 5:32) – comes from one of the early texts of Judaism (and apparently is a retelling of the Cain and Abel story in-context). Given that Judaism predated both Christianity and Islam, this makes chronological sense, but the origin and evolution of this phrase is expectedly complicated. Check out this article in Mosaic for more details.
  • We spoke vaguely of persecution of the Russian Orthodox Church under the USSR – none of us are particularly familiar with this period, but apparently
    Khrushchev (Stalin’s successor) stepped up this persecution as soon as he took office.

Listen above, or download: The Death of Stalin, Maktub, Keep the Change (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

Ava DuVernay’s “A Wrinkle in Time” – A bold, beautiful, simple mix

I enjoyed just about every moment of Ava DuVernay‘s bold, relentless, and optimistic film, A Wrinkle in Time, despite a few cracks, which I’ve struggled to define since I saw it. The film is based on a 1962 novel by the late Madeleine L’Engle – a book that I haven’t read, but which I understand owes some affinity to the Christian-inspired fantasy of C.S. Lewis. This was a curious thing to know going into the film. As the young Meg (Storm Reid) gets whisked away on an adventure to far-flung dimensions/planets/wherever, the whole thing definitely had a bit of a Narnia vibe, but lacked the more explicit Christian imagery that appeared in those books and films. Reese Witherspoon‘s Mrs. Whatsit (one of the trio of space wizards that help to recruit Meg) clearly owes a bit to Mr. Tumnus, constantly making awkward jokes, flitting around like a pixie, and generally being delightful. There’s also a scene where Meg and the other kids – Meg’s brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) and neighbor boy Calvin (Levi Miller) – are offered delicious food that isn’t quite what it seems by an unnamed devilish figure (Michael Peña), and it all feels terribly familiar. And yet, there is nothing resembling an Aslan here. That’s to say, there is no Jesus-figure coming to save these kids from the evil they must face. They – and Meg in particular – need to figure out their place and save themselves. The space wizards – Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey) – feel quite as outmatched by the big evil thing as Meg is. The only difference is that Meg, who initially knows far less about what’s going on than the rest of her companions, is essentially the audience surrogate. And in that sense, this film owes far more to the likes of Harry Potter. Meg is special, the movie assures us, for reasons that she will discover along with the rest of us over the course of the film.

And so it begins in Meg’s bedroom, that iconic cradle of adventure at the top of the house that’s just a bit too big for the kid inside, with a rainstorm raging outside. This imagery is common because it works. It’s the stuff of wandering childhood minds that dream of launching into the dark sky and soaring into whatever lies beyond. And there Meg sits, pondering the four-year anniversary of the day her father, Dr. Alex Murry (Chris Pine), vanished without a trace or explanation. Meg wanders downstairs to find Charles Wallace pondering the occasion (and the absent father that he barely remembers), and heating up some milk for the two of them. And it’s all very nice. The first 15-20 minutes of this film are all character setup, and this cast pulls it off quite well. This is a family that has suffered some trauma, but they all mean well and care deeply for each other. Alex cared about his children before he vanished. Charles Wallace is a precocious little scamp, at once dressing down a pair of teachers (literally shouting “Shame on you!” in their faces) for chatting about the pair of troubled siblings behind their backs. Precocious is also an apt word for McCabe’s acting, which requires a great deal of the young actor over the course of the film – it really is an outstanding performance.

Through flashbacks, we learn that Alex Murry and his wife Dennys (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) – also a PhD of some sort – discovered a means of traveling great distances throughout the universe. We see Murry showing the younger Meg (Lyric Wilson) some basic science at the start of the film – just long enough to provide an emotional and intellectual connection between the two for us to care about – when later that night, he vanishes. And that’s about as far as the movie’s dalliance with science goes. It makes a few vague references toward space-time curvature, before Murry explains – to an assemblage of NASA officials – that no spaceship will be required for the method of interstellar travel that the Murrys have discovered. You’ll just need to use your mind and reach out with love…or something. They rightfully chuckle and murmur and look worried, but that’s really about as specific as the film’s conveyance gets. The way it’s rendered on-screen, images just kind of warp and twist around each other, until the character steps into a translucent opening that doesn’t seem to even be there, and then reappears somewhere else. And that’s where Dr. Murry went – 91 billion light years away (almost the diameter of the observable universe!) – and that’s exactly how his daughter Meg will follow him, somehow. All of this starts out vague and is never clarified, and honestly, that’s another similarity to Harry Potter which is bittersweet in retrospect. The first Potter film sets up an elaborate world of magical powers, but assures us that the main character will have some uniquely powerful command of that world – an assurance that is essentially an article of faith, not well justified in text or screen. Potter – and Meg – are important because the script says that they have to be. But this is actually intended as a roundabout compliment – Reid’s performance really sells the notion that Meg needs to figure out her place and importance on her own, through the course of events. Her father is out there, and she wants to find him, so she’s highly motivated. People tell Meg that she’s special, and Mrs. Whatsit trades knowing banter with Charles Wallace about what his sister can do, but she never really reveals that they’re correct until the critical moment, when she has to save the day. But all of the ill-defined powers in this film feel as if they’ll eventually be explained, and I never felt any doubt that Meg would eventually come out of her shell.

And here’s where I, white male film critic, will attempt (with some humility) to discuss the casting of this film. Meg is played by a young African-American girl, and it seems right to acknowledge that casting a young person of color to be the hero of this story is kind of a big deal (even if a few other examples come to mind). There are plenty of characteristics of Meg – her sullenness and guilt over her father’s disappearance, her shy demeanor and anxiety of being a preadolescent – that seem to have little or nothing to do with her race, at least not in any way that is made explicit. And yet, Meg’s situation is racialized in various ways – when she lashes out at Veronica, a [white] girl in her class, for bullying her about her father’s disappearance, she gets called into the principal’s office to be dressed down for spiking a basketball into Veronica’s face. Now, I’m not going to say a basketball to the face doesn’t hurt, but as the principal – also African-American – is telling her that Veronica’s parents “fear for her safety”, it’s hard not to think that these words would be thrown around much less casually for the idle (and provoked) shenanigans of, say, Calvin. [White] boys will be boys. Students of color get suspended or arrested, because identical behavior from these students is regarded as a “safety issue” that can’t be handled through more mundane and short-lived methods of in-school discipline. None of this is explicitly detailed in the film, but using this sort of language to describe such an innocuous event feels like a conscious choice. It also seems deliberate that Meg is repeatedly given grief (and gives herself grief) for her hair, which is…well, natural for a young black girl. In a note of bitter fantasy later in the film, we catch a momentary alternate vision of what Meg “could be” (also played by Reid), and it notably includes hair that has been straightened and hangs past her shoulders. Beauty standards are arbitrary, capricious, and white-centric, and this is not a new observation. I promise, I’m not trying to pat myself on the back for wokeness here, but these elements were there, and it would feel disingenuous not to acknowledge them, since they felt as earnest as every other detail about this character. It’s the inclusion of these sorts of details – specific to the experience of being a black preteen, or perhaps being from a mixed-race family – that make it so welcome to see a woman of color with at least one excellent film under her belt finally get the mandate and a $100M+ budget to tell this sort of story. A Wrinkle In Time is a sweet, human adventure about love conquering evil, and this film makes the simple – and in no way provocative – point that a young black girl can absolutely be the hero of that story. Representation in film production is important – not because of any unspoken rule that people need to stick within their own demographic lanes when it comes to the stories they tell, but because people are well equipped to bring earnestness and veracity of details to the stories that they know from personal experience.

So Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin are on a quest to find Dr. Murry and bring him back home to his family. They get recruited by the trio of space wizards, make a delightful detour to a gorgeous practical set to have their fortune told by the Happy Medium (Zach Galifianakis), and eventually head off to try and rescue their father from the great big ball of evil in the sky, known variably as “It” and “Camazotz”. And honestly, this is the two thirds of the film that I have the shortest appetite to describe in detail, because it was all very pretty and well-rendered and vague. And this vagueness served to the detriment of the characters at times. When one planet begins gobbling up the landscape with a swirling vortex, Meg deduces that the gyre will throw the group up and over a nearby mountain if they just rush into it and hide inside a stump. It is utterly unclear how she figured this out, or how this fridge-nuking method of travel is supposed to help them survive, so when she turns to Calvin to ask, “Do you trust me?”, I almost laughed aloud. I mean, he came this far for no obvious reason besides a crush on Meg. Sure, I guess? Even as I was completely on board with the emotional journeys of Meg and Charles Wallace respectively (which are noticeably distinct), I was simultaneously impressed and aloof from the fantasy elements and locations. They evoked the same sort of feeling as Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets – a series of well-rendered locales that intrigued me with their storytelling possibilities, but which were individually pretty hard to latch onto, since it simply felt as if anything could happen at any time, and no one was ever in any real danger. The ill-defined nature of Meg’s knowledge and power contributed to this as well. Reid plays the character as an extreme introvert at the start, which is why watching her confidence grow is so electrifying. But the details of each place she ventures to, while gorgeous to look upon, felt fundamentally simplistic and low-stakes. Those are the cracks I referred to at the start. The cast of this film works. The characters and relationships work. The vistas are gorgeous. Even Mrs. Who’s annoying book of quotations (which include one from Hamilton?) worked. And yet, I’d have a hard time describing exactly how this story was resolved, or what any specific character did to contribute to it. The big ball of evil can only be defeated with love (sound familiar?), and Meg shows love for her family and friends, as well as an acknowledgement and acceptance of her own flaws, which Mrs. Whatsit assures her are an asset. It all feels lovely and inspiring, if a little simplistic. It would be a bit of a facile giveaway for me to say that perhaps this is enough for a children’s film. But that’s a mantle that is often used dismissively, and I have no desire to dismiss this film. As someone who hasn’t read the book, I can’t speak to the film’s effectiveness as an adaptation, but this script – from Disney veterans Jennifer Lee (Frozen) and Jeff Stockwell (Bridge to Terabithia) – shows as steady a hand with these characters as DuVernay and her FX team have with the look and feel of these worlds. And I’ll reiterate what I said at the outset: I enjoyed nearly every moment of this film. It’s a grand, self-appointed adventure for the kids of the next generation, as much in the tradition of Spielberg’s E.T. as Rowling’s Harry Potter. Whether through better adaptation, a smarter relationship with science, or a bit more coherence to its system of magic travel, A Wrinkle in Time does feel as if it could have been something more. But it satisfies on its own terms.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #128 – “Phantom Thread” (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

Poster for "Phantom Thread"

This week on the podcast, Glenn and Daniel, along with special guest Erika Spoden, take a very special Oscar week look back at one of the Best Picture contenders we missed last year (and we covered several!), Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread (43:04).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 8.5 out of 10

Show notes:

  • Music for this episode is the tracks “House of Woodcock” and “For the Hungry Boy”, from the film’s original score by Jonny Greenwood.
  • CORRECTION: We made a reference to the Panama Papers – we were, in fact, thinking of the Paradise Papers. We would simply ignore our misdeed and sweep this errant detail under the rug, but we don’t wish to be like the people featured in these papers.

Listen above, or download: Phantom Thread (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #127 – “Annihilation” (dir. Alex Garland)

Poster for "Annihilation"

This week on the podcast, Glenn and Daniel head into the mysterious world of the Shimmer, hspcp ylelwtp azcexly lyo zespcd pyepc l xjdepctzfd hzcwo zq dnclxmwpo yzydpydp lyo te’d acpeej nzzw lyo hptco, mfe ld td zqepy esp nldp rwpyy wtvpo te mpeepc esly olytpw (34:26).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 6.5/10 (Daniel), 7.5/10 (Glenn)

Show notes:

  • Music for this episode is the tracks “Disoriented” and “The Beach”, by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, from the film’s original score.
  • CORRECTION: The use of white phosphorus munitions is not as clear-cut (from a standpoint of international law or US military regulations) as I suggested. It’s definitely some nasty shit though.
  • We briefly discussed the immortal cervical cancer cell line from Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951), known as HeLa, which has been invaluable and prolific in cancer research, with an estimated 20 tons of sample material grown by researchers in laboratory conditions. It’s also part of the unfortunate legacy of dubious or outright unethical medical experimentation on African-American patients (without consent or compensation) that was commonplace in the early to mid-20th century. The book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, which Lena is seen to be reading in this film, is a fascinating primer on the case.
  • CORRECTION: Apoptosis is indeed the term for the biologically programmed death of a cell. However, I misremembered this as the subject of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Researcher Yoshinori Ohsumi won the prize in that year for his study of a related, but not identical, process, autophagy, a fundamental process for degrading and recycling components within a cell.

Listen above, or download: Annihilation (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)