'Sarah Marshall' has flaws, but it's a laugh riot

Ed Symkus

If just one lesson is to be learned in this newest offering from the Judd Apatow school of contemporary comedy, it’s that dating and working together just don’t mix. Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell) is the co-star (with Billy Baldwin!) of one of those curiously popular “CSI”-like TV shows, and Peter Bretter (Jason Segel) composes the scores for the show. They’ve been together for 5 1/2 years and they make, as the celebrity press suggests, an “adorable couple.”

So when, only minutes into the film, Sarah announces to Peter that she’s breaking up with him — while he’s standing there, stark naked, as seems to happen quite often in Apatow-produced films — he can only make sad puppy eyes as she walks out of his life, with nary an explanation.

Shattered, Peter doesn’t know what to do with himself. Things go wrong at work; since she’s a TV star, he sees her face everywhere; his shrink (Steve Landesberg) can only suggest that he go out and have lots of sex.

Segel (currently playing Marshall on “How I Met Your Mother” but best known as Nick on “Freaks and Geeks”), a big, lumbering guy, makes for one terrific sad sack, and plays the part to the hilt, all the while going for and getting laughs, accompanied by audience sympathy.

A pal recommends that he just get away from it all, go on a Hawaiian vacation and forget about Sarah. Which he does, only to find — can you say “major coincidence?” — Sarah and her new boyfriend, the self-centered and kinda stupid Brit rock star Aldous Snow (Russell Brand), registered at the same hotel.

What’s an insecure loser like Peter to do? Well, he goes up to his room and starts to cry — no, he starts heaving sobs of the loud “oo hoo hoo” variety. It’s not long before everyone at the hotel — including the gorgeous Rachel (Mila Kunis) behind the reception desk — knows Peter’s story. A chunk of the film’s laughs comes from the advice he gets from total strangers, as well as from the script’s abundance of sex references and from the collection of characters who somehow make a living at the hotel.

Of the Apatow regulars, there’s Paul Rudd playing an absurdly laid-back surfer dude, and Jonah Hill as a scatterbrained waiter who’s more hindering than helpful.

Of that advice that keeps coming Peter’s way, he decides to take it when the subject of asking out Rachel comes up. But you’ve got to wonder if it’s a good idea for him to bring up his plans to write a rock opera about Dracula — featuring puppets — on a first date.

For those not familiar with Judd Apatow, he’s directed “Knocked Up” and “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” and he’s produced, among others, “Walk Hard,” “Superbad” and “Talladega Nights.” For anyone who’s seen any of those films, it shouldn’t be a surprise that in this movie there’s a perfectly delivered joke about genital herpes, that viewers will learn the difference between “sad tissues” and “happy tissues,” and that, near the end, there’s yet another scene of Peter buck naked. As an “added attraction,” his nude scenes are of the fully frontal sort.

This is a raucous and raunchy and somehow very sweet film that keeps veering between dizzying happiness and lovelorn sadness. Peter regularly has flashes back to his earlier days with Sarah, but with viewers learning more and more about her, it’s hard to tell whether those times were better or bitter. It’s a mixed up, shook up look at relationships and how easy it is for them to go bad, but also what a snap it can be to jump up and get into another one.

Directed by first-timer Nicholas Stoller, the film loosely follows the successful Apatow formula of guy meets girl, guy loses girl, guy gets girl. Yet the story doesn’t feel the least bit formulaic (except for an unnecessary bit of seriousness near the end which gets solved so quickly, it’s as if it never happened). The best part of it, aside from the perky, bubbly performance by Mila Kunis, is that you can guess all you want as to exactly where the plot is headed, but you likely won’t get it. Actually, both of those ingredients are very important, but the very best part is that Peter wasn’t kidding about his opera, and yes, we get to see a piece of “Dracula,” with puppets!

Grade: B+

Rated R. “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” contains sexual situations, strong language and male nudity.