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, Liz and I, we think the world of Sarah…”, before kindly suggesting that Sarah “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 her repeatedly 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 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 was 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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Greg Mottola’s “Paul” – An overstuffed road trip

For some, Paul might provoke a sense of nostalgia. It is chock full of so many elaborate and perfectly executed pop culture references that you’ll spend far more time knowingly chuckling than actually laughing. It has all the ingredients of a solid road-trip comedy – Graeme (Simon Pegg) and Clive (Nick Frost) are a pair of unabashed nerds who take an RV across the American Southwest in search of gorgeous scenery and all things UFO. Halfway to Roswell, they run into an honest-to-goodness alien named Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen). Oh, and did I mention that Pegg and Frost, the beloved comedic duo from Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, also wrote the screenplay? And that they secured director Greg Mottola, whose last film made my Top 10 of 2009?

With all of these players involved, I am baffled as to why Paul is staggeringly unfunny for most of its runtime. The first 15 minutes, in which we get to know Graeme and Clive, are downright tedious. Pegg and Frost have their usual rapport, but their naturalistic banter is saddled with an overabundance of scatological humor and enough gay jokes to overwhelm Adam Sandler. Pegg and Frost’s relationship definitely got stronger as the film went on, but this first act was bad enough that I found myself wondering if, in a world where I hadn’t seen their prior collaborations, I would have bought them as friends at all.

Nonetheless, the film becomes truly enjoyable as soon as Rogen enters the picture. Rogen’s voice performance is hilarious and raunchy (like Rogen himself), and the repartee between Pegg, Frost, and Rogen (which allegedly contained a great deal of improv) is definitely where Paul is at its strongest. And that’s just what this film needed! Bring these giants of geek comedy together, and just let them be funny with each other. Instead, there were far too many scenes that dragged on for just a bit too long in the service of gags that aren’t nearly as funny as the movie thinks they are. When Paul brings a bird back to life with his E.T. mind-magic and then eats it, I chuckled (at least, I chuckled when I saw it in the trailer). But did it merit such an awkward pause in both story and comedic timing? Not at all. And there were a dozen other gags that felt just as expendable.

I’ve omitted some characters thusfar. Jason Bateman plays Agent Zoil, the ruthless man-in-black who is doggedly pursuing Paul. And I must say – this is one of Bateman’s finest performances. Bateman is the consummate straight man in every comedic project, and to see a straight-man who is heavily armed and committed to tracking down and killing every comedic character in the bunch is frightening and hilarious. Kristen Wiig is also in the mix as Ruth, the daughter of a Christian fundamentalist, and quasi love interest for Graeme. I don’t have much to say about this character – mocking religious nuts is pretty passé (and a bit too easy), and Ruth and her dad were perhaps the most extreme indications that this script was written by a pair of Brits who only had an eye for American caricature. The film simply felt overstuffed with both one-note characters and underused comedic talents (including Bill Hader, Joe Lo Truglio, Jeffrey Tambor, Jane Lynch, David Koechner, and one more I won’t spoil), who had very little to do with their brief screen-time except make the audience wonder why they showed up.

The most frustrating thing about Paul is that there seems to be a truly great road-trip adventure film at the center of it. Pegg, Frost, and Rogen (and eventually Wiig) are an affable group, and the wide open spaces and scenery look gorgeous (can’t go wrong with the American Southwest). Blythe Danner shows up as Tara Walton, the adult version of the little girl who first discovered Paul’s crash site, and I must say – this is a backstory that deserved more screen time. This film teases the kinds of strong relationships found in E.T. and Close Encounters, but seems too timid to actually embrace them. Every time it comes close, it wastes time on a throwaway line or shot-for-shot scene remake of one of those films instead. Comedy cannot survive on referential gags alone, and Paul‘s focus on them is entirely to its detriment.

FilmWonk rating: 4.5 out of 10

Sidenote: Kudos to the effects team that designed the alien Paul. This was a perfect fusion of reality and CG character design, on the same level of realism as District 9, but with a much more cartoonishly designed alien (which makes it even more impressive).

Week in Brief: “Whip It”, “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs”

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Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, Whip It, is the story of Bliss (Ellen Page), a 17-year-old girl who takes a shine to roller derby – the sport in which ladies both lovely and terrifying skate around a banked oval track throwing elbows and attempting to collapse each other’s lungs while passing their opponents’ crumpled bodies to score points. The title refers to a technique whereby one or two skaters act as an anchor to in order to “whip” a teammate past them – a slingshot maneuver designed to greatly increase the teammate’s speed around the track. When I saw this and similar maneuvers put forth in the later matches of the film, I couldn’t help but think of the “Flying V” of The Mighty Ducks. Indeed, Whip It ends up falling somewhere between a Disney sports film and a Texas football tale, and even without the other story trappings, it would be an admirable entry in the sporting genre.

Bliss’ mother Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden) puts constant pressure on her daughter to stay pretty and compete in events that are equal parts beauty pageant and debutante ball, and is naturally appalled to find out what her daughter is doing with her spare time. The parallels to overeager Texas football dads aren’t exactly subtle, but this subplot worked well for me, owing largely to Page and Harden’s performances, as well as that of Daniel Stern as Bliss’ father.

When confessing her secret sporting life to her parents, Bliss proclaims, “I am in love with this!”. This line was in the trailer, and Page delivered it with such earnestness that it was almost solely responsible for my interest in this film. The story of a teenager in love who doesn’t need to wallow in brooding, misunderstood angst was strangely appealing to me, and Page’s performance delivered on every bit of promise from this line.

And yet, Bliss is not an unrealistic or idealized teen. She acts bratty and selfish at times, and is ultimately put in her place a bit for it. She partakes in a romance with a local guitarist, for no clear reason other than because he’s (omg) super-hot. This storyline initially seems pointless, but pays off rather well in the end, and treats us to a bizarre, but entertaining underwater makeout scene.

The supporting cast is solid, with great performances from Alia Shawkat (“Arrested Development”), Zoe Bell (the Kiwi stuntwoman from Death Proof), Andrew Wilson (Idiocracy), and Kristen Wiig (“SNL”) – who proves her acting chops even without her signature comedic deadpan. The great Juliette Lewis is also effective as a rival derby player.

The only real weak link in the acting – with the exception of Jimmy Fallon as an absolutely repellent announcer – is director Drew Barrymore. I was conflicted about her presence as an actress in this film; at times, it seems self-indulgent. Barrymore plays a member of the derby team – basically a non-character, lacking any defining characteristics beyond her nom de guerre (Smashley Simpson). I can’t comment much on her performance, since she doesn’t really do much acting, but she does bring the same convincing physicality to the derby sequences as the ladies above (granted, I have no idea how many of the stunts were actually done by the actresses). There’s seems to be no reason for her to be in this film except to join the fun, but I can’t fault her too much for it.

As a freshman filmmaker, Barrymore’s direction is not mindblowing, but she has done a fine job. Cinematographer Robert Yeoman brings the same sort of semi-grainy look that he’s used in every one of Wes Anderson’s films, but it works fine here. The camera starts off tight and claustrophobic – focusing on a one or two players at a time, intermixed with POV shots (seemingly from a camera on skates), but as the film goes on, the shots get wider, and we see more and more. The direction kept the action coherent, built the matches’ interest as the film went on, and brought an adequate measure of intimacy and earnestness to the character moments.

The empowering message of “Be Your Own Hero” is ever-present, but not overwrought. If there’s one message the film conveys best, it’s that roller derby looks brutal and immensely fun, and it’s wrapped in enough solid character work to make this a memorable film.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10
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Poster for "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs".

Every once in a while, a film comes along that challenges Pixar’s well-earned dominance of the animation market. A film with a solid story, compelling characters, and gorgeous animation. Last year, it was about a panda that wants to learn kung fu. This year, it’s about a scientist who builds a machine that turns rain…into food.

Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader) is a crackpot inventor who has built a myriad of bizarre inventions since childhood, from spray-on shoes to a monkey thought translator. His latest invention is a machine that can “mutate the genetic formula of water to turn it into food”. And that’s about as detailed as the science gets in this film. Lockwood’s lab is designed very much in the Calvin and Hobbes aesthetic, complete with a set of blast doors painted onto a curtain. And just like Calvin, all of the science he develops is immensely fun and borderline magical.

Lockwood lives on a drab island town in the North Atlantic called Swallow Falls, which had previously survived solely on its sardine industry. This industry collapsed when it was discovered – and announced in newspapers the world over – that “Sardines Are Super Gross”. While the town makes an ill-conceived attempt to revitalize through “sardine tourism”, Lockwood’s invention accidentally blasts into the sky (as crackpot inventions are wont to do), and he discovers that it can be programmed remotely to make the skies rain down any food the townspeople want like manna from heaven.

Also in the mix is the power (and food) hungry mayor (Bruce Campbell), a beautiful weather intern (Anna Faris), Lockwood’s disapproving father (James Caan), an aging former sardine mascot (Andy Samberg), and an alarmingly speedy cop (Mr. T). The casting is one of the film’s greatest strengths. Sony appears to have learned a lesson from Dreamworks’ failures. You can’t just pack a film with movie stars and expect them to do well as voice actors. These actors (even Mr. T) feel very much at home in their parts.

As for the character design, it seems quite deliberately cartoonish. Flint Lockwood looks more or less like Jon Arbuckle, with a nose easily half the size of his head. His father’s eyes aren’t even visible under a huge bushy brow and above an equally monstrous mustache, and Mr. T’s cop sports an inverted mohawk (a line shaved down the center). This is in stark contrast to the rest of the animation, which looks gorgeous and practically photorealistic. The film takes place in a sort of heightened reality, and yet the island of Swallow Falls feels every bit like a real place, from its initial shroud of gloomy gray mist to its eventual golden glow amid a shower of falling cheeseburgers. The weather and atmospheric effects are incredible, and the food looks delicious.

Still from "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs".

The film could have stopped there, but it goes on to showcase some remarkable visual wonders and absurdities. There are depictions of food and food-related wonder and peril that I never could’ve imagined before this film. What does a sunrise look like through the shimmering golden walls of a palace made of jello? How do the children play in a town covered in giant scoops of ice cream? What does it look like when huge animate gummy bears hop onto the wing of a plane and start ripping out wires like a pack of gremlins? I could go on. By the end of this film, you will know all of this, and more.

The film is written for the screen and directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, two of the writers of CBS’ brilliantly funny sitcom, “How I Met Your Mother”, and this film has many similarities to that show. In addition to the rapid-fire jokes delivered throughout the film, it also showcases several well-conceived running gags, each of which has a hilarious payoff by the end. It also balances the humor, which is unrelenting and hilarious, with some solid character work. There’s Sam Sparks, the weather girl, afraid to show how smart she really is, and ‘Baby’ Brent, the former sardine mascot, unsure of what to do with his life in adulthood…

There is also a very well-conceived relationship between Flint Lockwood and his father. Tim Lockwood is a simple fisherman, afraid of new technology, who can only communicate meaningfully with his son in the form of fish-related metaphors. As Flint unveils his fantastical machine to the townspeople, this relationship becomes imbued with subtle shades of the creative destruction wrought by new technology on old industry. The relationship keeps these shades while confronting one of the most basic questions between father and son: Is Tim proud or appalled by what Flint has accomplished?

It is largely through this relationship that the film tackles the implications and consequences of a society steeped in overconsumption, but it keeps this to a very basic level. This treatment of the film’s message seemed well-suited for such a lighthearted romp of a film, but it may feel to some like a missed opportunity. To such individuals, I would simply say this: not every film needs to be WALL-E. This film deftly acknowledges the implications of its grand premise, and then leaves its audience to ponder them further if they desire. This, along with the myriad of smart running gags, will ensure that this film rewards repeat viewings. This is a gorgeous, intelligent, and family-friendly piece of animation, sure to be enjoyed by adults and children alike. It respects its audience and will leave them begging for more.

FilmWonk rating: 8.5 out of 10

Special thanks to Devindra Hardawar from the /Filmcast for recommending this film, which I would probably have overlooked otherwise.