Did producer Judd Apatow swear a blood oath to make the comedy careers of everyone he hired on TV's Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared? I ask because the creative types on both those low-rated but deservedly treasured sitcoms keep turning up as actors, writers and directors on the films issuing from Apatow Nation. The last two (Walk Hard, Drillbit Taylor) were factory seconds. But Forgetting Sarah Marshall — the tale of a dude dumped by his girlfriend while his limp dick hangs out — ranks with the hit models, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Superbad.
The man of these two hours is doughy, hangdog, unfailingly funny Jason Segel, who appeared in Freaks, Undeclared and Knocked Up and currently does sitcom duty on the un-Apatovian How I Met Your Mother. Segel wrote the script and stars as the rejected lover in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and he pulls off both jobs with a deceptive ease that does Apatow proud. First-time feature director Nicholas Stoller — no surprise that he worked as a writer on Undeclared — shows a rare knack for keeping a balance between what makes the characters wacky and what makes them human. It's the job of Apatow regulars such as Jonah Hill, Paul Rudd and Bill Hader to blow in and rev up the laughs.
Mission accomplished. Segel is an immensely appealing screen presence as Peter Bretter, a couch potato who composes a Dracula musical for puppets while turning out what he calls "dark, ominous sounds" for a CSI-like crime drama in which Billy Baldwin (a hoot) co-stars with Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell), Peter's live-in girlfriend of five years. Peter knows he's dating above his pay grade. "Move out of the way, giant," scream paparazzi when Peter escorts Sarah to premieres. But this is a woman who buys him Tupperware to keep his cereal fresh. It's love. Cheers to Bell (Veronica Mars, Heroes) for finding nuance in a diva written as a stone-cold bitch. The sight of Sarah dumping a full-frontal Peter is one for the comedy time capsule — forget that he dissolves in tears. (Note to prudes: Even a shriveled schlong gets an R rating.) Peter's girlie meltdown disgusts his stepbrother, Brian (Hader), who hustles him off to Hawaii to forget Sarah at an Oahu resort where "lei" has at least two meanings.
Mahalo to that, brother. The scenes at the resort, which comprise the bulk of the movie, are rip-roaringly fun and surprisingly touching. Peter is crushed when Sarah shows up at the hotel with her randy new love, Brit rocker Aldous Snow (Russell Brand). Rachel (Mila Kunis of That '70s Show), a sympathetic hotel clerk, tries to cheer Peter up by letting him use a $6,000-a-night suite until Dakota Fanning shows up. But as Peter mopes, taking surf lessons from Kunu (Rudd) — it's Hawaiian for Chuck — and befriending Darald (Jack McBrayer of 30 Rock), a honeymooner chasing "the myth of the clitoris," the humor stays rooted in truth.
The trick of keeping many characters spinning simultaneously on film is not an easy one (see last year's The Heartbreak Kid for how to botch it). But Segel's deft script is a gift for actors. Two non-Apatow players nearly steal the movie. The illegally adorable Kunis is killer good, taking the second-tier role of rebound girl and turning it into her own Cinderella story. Brand, a Brit stand-up, radiates star quality and ace comic timing as the sexually insatiable lead singer of Infant Sorrow, a rocker so self-involved that he doesn't see why Sarah wouldn't want to join his groupies, the Sorrow Suckers, on tour. Brand is priceless when a pushy waiter (Hill is perfecto) asks if Aldous has listened to his audition CD. "I was going to," says Brand in an accent that blends Keith Richards with Monty Python, "but then I just carried on livin' my life."
OK, Forgetting Sarah Marshall goes out with a whimper when you so want a bang. But until then, this so-called romantic disaster comedy is a raucous ride through one man's pain. Apatow has given Segel all the tools to score his breakthrough in big-time movie comedy. Consider it scored.