Judd Apatow, who wrote and directed "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" (2005) and "Knocked Up" (2007), has become something of a Hollywood comedy juggernaut, with a production company churning out an average of one movie per financial quarter. But with "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," starring and written by longtime Apatow associate Jason Segel, Apatow Productions seems to be facing brand dilution.
This movie has all the earmarks of a hastily thrown-together project rushed onto the screen before it occurs to today's notoriously fidgety audiences to turn their gaze elsewhere -- "Juno"-ward, for instance. The audiences may be right to do so. The trademark Apatow mix of pasty, media-addled boy-men and the gorgeous, gorgeous women who badger them into an imitation of maturity already feels dated. "Juno," for all its glibness, successfully tapped into the pop of viral video and download culture. In comparison, the vibe of "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and its kin feels decidedly laser disc.
For reasons that seem more closely related to marketing triangulation than comic vision, "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" tries to warm over the "Knocked Up" combo platter of lighthearted sexual boorishness (for the young men in the audience) and relationship-oriented sentiment (for their dates). In a sign that the Apatow machine is running out of ideas, the new film, like last summer's hit, focuses on an overgrown adolescent, Peter (Segel), who's involved with a beautiful, blonde television personality, the eponymous Sarah (Kristen Bell).
Sarah, fed up with her beau's slovenly ways and penchant for re-enacting scenes from "The Lord of the Rings," kicks him to the curb. Heartbroken, he treats himself to a vacation in Hawaii, only to find that Sarah is staying at the very same resort, along with her new squeeze, an intolerably pretentious, globally famous British rock star (Russell Brand). For much of the balance of the movie, Peter divides his time between shadowing his ex and hanging out with another beauty (Mila Kunis), a hotel receptionist unaccountably drawn to this needy, wounded sad sack.
As this summary suggests, the movie very much tilts toward the fantasies of the males in the target demographic. Segel himself seems barely interested in the emotional details of the relationships that are supposed to be at the plot's core; it's sufficient to his purposes that fiercely toned women end up in bed with flabby men. Consequently, whenever members of the film's romantic quadrangle talk of their problems, the dialogue turns vague and generic, and the performances do little to bring the limp words to life.
Adding to the film's generally lackadaisical feel is the flat-footed work of first-time director Nicholas Stoller, who has contrived to make a film in Hawaii without serving up a single visually interesting shot. The three-part Hawaiian vacation episode of "The Brady Bunch" (1972) was more attentive to the island milieu than this film.
Clearly what works best in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" are the gags and one-liners, most of which could easily be cut and pasted into any old SNL-affiliated comedy. The film's most enjoyable moments are provided by Paul Rudd, who plays a stoned surfing instructor with teaching methods apparently derived from a harebrained version of Taoism (he cajoles his bewildered pupils with repeated commands to "do less"). With this loose-limbed performance, he's the only member of the cast who doesn't seem weighed down with awareness that his work will be enshrined in the burgeoning Apatow canon.
Thankfully, there are a handful of other funny moments, many accompanied by knowing references to the absurdities of television production. Peter, for example, makes his living composing for a plausibly awful "CSI" knockoff (starring William Baldwin as "Detective Hunter Rush"), and it's charming to hear his description of the musical noises that prevail there ("There's no melodies, just tones").
What's likely to prove the most enduring movie to come out of the Apatow atelier is "Superbad" (2007), because, focusing as it does on the adolescent behavior of how's this for novelty? adolescents, it's the only one of the movies that has much to do with real life. The rest show us the world as it would be if everyone in it behaved like sitcom writers locked together in a room, cracking wise all the livelong day and regaling each other with pop-culture arcana. This routine about youth is getting a little old. (R) 112 min. S