Jason Segel is responsible for two of the most cringe-inducing, hands-in-front-of-your-face moments in the recent history of television, both of which occurred during the sole season of NBC’s Freaks and Geeks. On the episode “I’m With the Band,” Segel’s bright-eyed burnout Nick imagined himself an arena-sized drummer behind his basement-bound 29-piece kit, where, clad in a KISS tee and green short-shorts, he’d jam along to Rush’s “The Spirit of Radio” cranked through NASA-sized headphones. Only he couldn’t keep the beat if it were on a leash, and he spazzed out during an audition, finally breaking down and accepting tearful defeat. Which was nothing compared to his behavior two episodes later, when he wooed Linda Cardellini’s Lindsay Weir by sing-speaking along to Styx’s “Lady.” It’s still a singularly heartbreaking and hard-to-watch scene—a garish, sincere spectacle.
Segel’s character was created by Paul Feig and nurtured by Judd Apatow, and the actor, an Apatow regular in such efforts as Undeclared and Knocked Up, has more or less offered variations on Nick ever since—the huggable lug and/or schmaltzy stoner for whom no gesture is too outsized. The guy puts it all out there—and, like, it’s all out there, prompting Segel’s recent explanation to Entertainment Weekly of how to be properly turgid in an R-rated comedy.
It takes all of five minutes for Segel to drop towel in the new Forgetting Sarah Marshall: His character, Peter Bretter, is on the verge of being dumped by his longtime girlfriend, middlebrow TV actress Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell), but she won’t actually break up with him until he puts on some clothes, and so . . . he doesn’t. The way Peter figures it, the moment he puts on some clothes, “it’s over.”
The scene elicits big, dumb laughs—That dude’s naked, haw haw. But there’s also some sad, sweet truth to it that carries over throughout the movie: Absolutely, Sarah would have bailed on Peter the moment he put on his pants. So it’s up to Peter, and his peter, to stand there as long as possible, daring her to walk out while he’s as vulnerable as it gets—flabby, pasty, and stark effin’ nude.
Segel’s still getting his freak on—and his geek, too—playing this songwriter who’s spent years working on a musical starring a Dracula puppet who just wants a little looooove. Even if his movie, produced by Apatow and directed by first-timer Nicholas Stoller, visits familiar territory—Hawaii, specifically, where he goes to forget his lady love, only to bump into her seconds after his arrival—Segel’s willing to go to dark, weird places his contemporaries won’t. Peter fits neatly into the Apatow catalog of screwed-up, stunted crybaby man-boys, but he’s also Bruce Jay Friedman’s Lonely Guy—nothing more, or less, than a misfit and a mess.
Eventually, of course, he will meet the woman who puts him back together: Rachel Jansen (Mila Kunis), a receptionist at the Hawaii hotel to which Peter retreats once he discovers that screwing his way through El Lay ladies won’t cure his heartbreak. The film ultimately adheres to the romantic-comedy formula, which demands we root for boy to get girl—any girl, so long as he winds up happy by the end credits. Rachel’s as good as any: She’s a smart, tough stunner who initially takes pity on pathetic Peter, before realizing he’s a good guy done wrong by Sarah. But their scenes together feel like cogs in the romantic-comedy machine that also finds Sarah hooked up with a loutish British pop star named Aldous Snow (Russell Brand), for whom leather pants are perfectly suitable beachwear. (Though, to be fair, Brand’s a rather brilliant comedian and no small asset to the picture.)
Several members of Apatow’s troupe of regular irregulars also show up: Paul Rudd as a bottle-bleached surfer, spouting stoner aphorisms; Jonah Hill as a waiter with a desperate man-crush on Aldous; Bill Hader as the stepbrother cajoling Peter to get on with what little life he’s got; Jack McBrayer as the simpering newlywed finding Jesus between his wife’s thighs. But without Segel bravely channeling “his own anxieties and obsessions into his clowning,” as Pauline Kael wrote about Woody Allen 24 years ago, Forgetting Sarah Marshall would have been easily forgettable and, one might even say, limp.