By Michael Koresky
Forgetting Sarah Marshall
Dir. Nicholas Stoller, U.S., Universal
Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up received a lot of notice from certain circles for its depiction of its star’s vagina, in close-up, as a locus of terror, confusion, and disgust. It’s a climactic shock-cut to Katherine Heigl’s double’s crotch, where her baby is crowning, the sight of which sends one of her boyfriend’s pothead buddies, and presumably us, into screechy hysterics. Pair this with Superbad’s menstruation-on-the-pants centerpiece, and you’ve got a pretty fair analysis of Apatow and Co.’s gender-regulated comic agenda. Yet at the opposite end of the spectrum dangles the real star of these films, which has been put on increasingly prominent display: from Superbad’s book of elaborate diddle doodling to Walk Hard’s full frontal, and now to Forgetting Sarah Marshall’s opening break-up scene, in which shlumpy (natch) protagonist Peter (Jason Segel) refuses to get dressed while his longtime girlfriend, Sarah (Kristen Bell), breaks up with him, the penis has become the de facto protagonist.
Like a paring down to the genre’s purest essence, it was only a matter of time before the sex comedy—fueled by libido, the search for the perfect ejaculation, the sting of sexual humiliation, the inner and outer vulnerability of the male beast—was reduced to this. Some might try and recoup this as an enlightened embracing of the homoerotic subtext within so much contemporary mainstream entertainment, as the naked male gets as much screen time as the female traditionally has; instead, the double standard has not only remained but been magnified. As a parade of doughy lumps (Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Jonah Hill), given to habits like eating vast amounts of Fruit Loops from giant mixing bowls and blissfully ignorant of how to make themselves appealing to the fairer sex, continue to bag a nonstop succession of certifiable hotties (Heigl, Emma Stone, Kristen Bell, Mila Kunis), the gap grows ever wider. The vagina may continue to terrify and baffle, but the whole female package is as glorious as ever; meanwhile disgust for the male form continues. The joke of Segel’s nudity is that this is something we don’t want to see; it’s the same basic principle that instigates the culturally manufactured, Pavolvian hetero gag reflex when same-sex kisses pop up and that makes appreciation of the male body a pastime of deviants. During Segel’s improper flaunting of his “junk,” one can hear the audience wishing it away with nervous titters and squeals. The camera hovers gingerly above the crotch at first, teasing the viewer with its eventual appearance; when it finally shows up, editor William Kerr springs into action, quickly cutting around it for an oddly angled game of audience peekaboo.
Meanwhile, Segel’s torso, of the Will Ferrell American-everyguy variety, is equally treated as spectacle; freckled and beefy like a lopsided, overgrown baby, Segel needn’t be a looker to carry a romantic comedy (with his slightly down-turned mouth and hollowed eyes, he resembles a young Lee J. Cobb), but the constant exposure of his flesh, enabled and exacerbated by the film’s beach setting, also needn’t be a call for grotesquerie. It’s a similar approach offered after Knocked Up’s one-night-stand sequence, in which Seth Rogen’s puckered, hairy ass is framed and harshly lit for prime morning-after impact; it’s also telling that Paul Rudd, the most classically handsome of this troupe, only goes silly and shirtless while at his most potbellied, in The 40-Year-Old Virgin’s singalong climax. The attitude is reminiscent of Elaine’s disgusted harangue on Seinfeld that the male body is merely utilitarian, “for gettin’ around . . . like a Jeep.” Her comments, burst from the pens of male writers of course, underline a basic modern comic premise, in which the male himself is “utilitarian,” which, conversely, must make the woman impractical, an adornment, powder on the pig. In truth, there’s nothing egregiously unattractive about most of these actors, that is until their physical roundness is heightened while rutting up against fitter females—most noticeably in Forgetting Sarah Marshall’s early post-break-up montage sequence, in which Segel improbably bangs a succession of interchangeable pretty women, naturally all of whom are comically bad lays.
In Apatow land, a sexually adept male (or make that a white, sexually adept male, as 40-Year-Old Virgin’s questionable racial stereotyping via Romany Malco’s adulterous, stereo-salesman player can attest) is emasculated, the butt of jokes; in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Russell Brand’s irritating horndog Brit superstar Aldous Snow, one-part Fabio, two-parts Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel, is identified early on as buffoonish for his proclivity to dress and dance provocatively, while singing ludicrously titled hits like “Inside of You” (later in the film he enacts an impromptu bit of stage-humping that looks not unlike Linda Blair’s excised “spider-walk” from The Exorcist). The equation of seductiveness exclusively with femininity (typified by Aldous’s long hair and mesh shirts) creates an endpoint for gender politics; this explains the cultural phenomenon of these films, which produce spaces for frank sexual discussion, only to quickly fill them with easy retreats into bourgeois values (growing up, settling down, having kids). In a sense, then, the gross-out gag is here the ultimate red herring—a cathartic release amidst a narrative that lulls the audience into submission.
Nausea is a common response in comedy, especially in its most explicit, post-Farrelly form, in which the stream of jokes is required to enact a trajectory of “can you top that?” shock, not unlike the escalating violence of slasher films. Yet injecting such humor into Forgetting Sarah Marshall is simply kneejerk pandering; low-key and eminently mediocre, Nicholas Stoller’s film, written by Segel himself, is the most straightforward of the Apatow-produced romantic-comedies-in-dude-flick-disguise, a likeably casual date movie that’s ultimately about as subversive as a Richard Curtis-Hugh Grant vehicle (for all its dick-joke ribaldry, these films have nothing on lurid Eighties laughers like Blame It on Rio or Losin’ It). As with Knocked Up, the most genuinely funny moments in the film are the somewhat inexplicable throwaways (Segel drunkenly accompanying himself on the piano to the Muppet Show theme) or the au courant pop culture references that will date it just a few years from now (William Baldwin’s dead-on aping of David Caruso in a CSI parody is particularly hilarious: “The victim’s penis was found behind the air conditioner”; Baldwin, in hushed seriousness: “Can you say dicksicle?”). Less successful are the main story arcs and reversals; the contrivance of Segel choosing the same Hawaii hotel where Sarah is staying with new beau Aldous; the foregone-conclusion rebound romance between Segel and Kunis’s gorgeous hotel hospitality agent, which tiresomely stops and starts; Peter’s awkward Dracula puppet rock-opera subplot, which only seems to exist for some last-minute let’s-put-on-a-show laziness. It also must be considered a creative liability at this point that the women in these films are growing increasingly generic: Heigl’s Alison was allowed only the scantest neuroses to deepen her character, but she’s eminently preferable to Bell’s blank-eyed Sarah (it’s impossible to believe that she and Segel had a single meaningful back-and-forth in their entire, ostensibly long relationship) and Kunis’s haughty sexpot (one of whose demeaning establishing traits is that an embarrassing topless photo of her is taped above the urinal in the hotel bathroom). One of Knocked Up’s strongest scenes involved Kristen Wiig’s passive-aggressive TV producer’s dressing down of pregnant Alison; one can only imagine the comic possibilities if an actress with Wiig’s comic presence (Tina Fey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Maya Rudolph, Wanda Sykes) were allowed to infiltrate this boy’s club.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which has an appearance so singularly ugly (even Hawaii looks washed out and brown) that it makes the visually incoherent Knocked Up seem visually splendid by comparison, will undoubtedly be regaled for its “sweetness.” That this is in and of itself not necessarily a virtue is mostly lost on today’s critics, and only speaks to the film’s ultimate tonal flatness, platitudinous nature (Segel’s script isn’t exactly breaking any new ground when Kunis gets stunted sad-sack Peter to open up by jumping off a high cliff), and noticeable split from its mean-spirited ad campaign (the misleading posters, which simply display the words “I hate you, Sarah Marshall” or “You do look fat in those jeans, Sarah Marshall” in handwritten scrawl, portend a far more bitter break-up comedy than what’s delivered). In fact, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is such an average guy-gets-unattainable-girl scenario that perhaps its everlasting image, of a flaccid cock, dangling pathetically, is all too fitting.