From its raunchy, genitally obsessed dialogue to its tender heart, "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" is instantly recognizable as a product of Clubhouse Apatow. Its director, first-timer Nicholas Stoller, and its writer and star, Jason Segel, are alumni of Judd Apatow's cult TV shows "Undeclared" and "Freaks and Geeks." Like "Knocked Up" and "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," which established Apatow as the definitive comic observer of the perpetually adolescent American male—a clueless, slothful, hairy beast in desperate need of female taming—"Forgetting Sarah Marshall" focuses on a guy in the throes of romantic agony. His name is Peter (Segal) and he's just been dumped by the love of his life, the beautiful blonde Sarah (Kristen Bell), the star of a TV cop show called "Crime Scene: Scene of the Crime." The guy's an open wound, which makes him a perfect subject for Apatowian romantic comedy, where the line between squirming in pain and squealing with delight is always thin.
The breakup scene is not one you're likely to forget, for Peter is buck naked when Sarah breaks the bad news, and remains that way throughout the entire scene. It's a new, and startling, use of full-frontal male nudity—one that makes his emotional vulnerability hilariously, uncomfortably literal. His humiliations, however, are just beginning. Peter's efforts to drown his sorrows in random sex don't work out as planned—he tends to sob uncontrollably—nor does his escape to Oahu, where he hopes to distract himself with mai tais and Margaritas. More bad luck: who should he bump into at the luxury resort but Sarah? Even worse, she's with her new fling—Aldous Snow (Russell Brand), a leather-clad, swaggering Brit rock star who wears his raging libido on his sleeveless arms.
A lesser movie would turn the lecherous Snow and the unfaithful Sarah into comic monsters, and Peter and his potential new romantic interest, the lovely hotel receptionist Rachel (Mila Kunis), into paragons, but Segel's script is subtler and smarter than that. It has a generosity toward all its characters that rescues it from predictability. Brand, a celebrated stand-up comic in Britain, noted for his improv, makes his preening, sober-alchoholic stud almost likable: there's something admirable about Snow's ruthless honesty. And Bell's pampered Sarah, against all odds, turns surprisingly sympathetic when we get to hear her side of the story. Even more alluring is Kunis's Rachel, under whose comforting professional manner lurks a passionate party girl with a big heart and a hair-trigger temper. Segel, a big, fleshy white boy with a face on the borderline between bland and good-looking, may initially seem an odd leading-man choice, but this cherubic sad sack grows on you. That harmless surface conceals killer comic instincts. As a bonus, Stoller stuffs his movie with such Apatow regulars as Paul Rudd (as a stoner surfing instructor), Jonah Hill (as Snow's too-rabid admirer) and Bill Hader (as Peter's brother, coaching him through his crisis) They are becoming a repertory company as reliable as Preston Sturges's great second bananas.
If "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" doesn't reach the inspired heights of "Knocked Up" or "Superbad," it runs a very respectable second. And it sticks with you, unlike so many disposable romps, because you can sense the laughs are built on hard-earned personal experience. Who doesn't know what it feels like to get dumped? Segel and Stoller obviously subscribe to the Apatow credo: no pain, no comic gain.