As producer, writer, and director, Judd Apatow has made a very profitable career of surprising people—literally—with their pants down. The Apatow name on any film certifies that most or all of the characters therein will be caught in the most flagrantly, compromisingly sexual situations short of an NC-17 rating, and in ways to guarantee the maximum possible embarrassment. In comedies such as Knocked Up, The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Superbad, Apatow and his avatars create bawdy situations not mainly for titillation (though that element certainly exists), but to show what hapless, helpless, endearing schlubs men (and to a lesser extent women) are when confronted with the laws and consequences of mutual attraction.
Peter Bretter (Jason Segel), the protagonist of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, may be the most hapless and endearing boy-man in the entire Apatow canon. (For the record, Apatow is a co-producer of Forgetting Sarah Marshall; Segel is the screenwriter, Nicholas Stoller the director.) Peter is caught full frontal at the beginning and the end of the film (brandishing the emblem of his Christian name, as Dickens might have opined—never mind that Segel is Jewish), all the better to emphasize his naked vulnerability with women. Composer for a TV crime show, Peter has been in a five-year relationship with the series star, the eponymous Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell), when Sarah announces she has fallen for pretentious horndog rock star Aldous Snow (Russell Brand). Shattered by his loss, Peter is bullied by his snarky stepbrother (Bill Hader) into booking a trip to get away from the scene of his misery. He chooses a swank resort hotel in Hawaii—only to find that Sarah and Aldous are already there.
Segel and Stoller milk the situation for every conceivable kind of mortification, as well as introducing a further complication in the form of Rachel (Mila Kunis), the hotel’s sweet, lovely and extremely alluring desk clerk. Will Peter distance himself from Sarah enough to find happiness with Rachel? Will he manage to avoid appearing like a creepy, obsessive stalker? Will he complete his projected Dracula musical? Will he find the courage to fight a bullying saloon owner and steal back for Rachel her bare-boobed photo on the men’s room wall?
All of these questions will be answered in turn, but none of them is all that burning, even in the film’s context. The only thing that matters here is laughs, laughs, laughs, and for the most part Forgetting Sarah Marshall provides those. The hallmark of any Apatow-sponsored film is the aura of sweetness and geniality it gives off despite the in-your-face raunchiness on constant display, largely because the main characters are mostly sweet and genial themselves. (Hostility and cruelty are the province of the minor characters, usually when least expected—such as the friendly breakfast waiter who punches out Peter on the beach that same night.) Sexuality is punched up to the rafters, all the better to have the characters (especially the male ones) wallow in the exquisite embarrassment of it all, and to underline the wildly divergent responses and expectations of men vs. women. The latter observations, unfortunately, aren’t always very fresh. (The final complication in Peter and Rachel’s relationship is almost identical to the ending of an old Sam-and-Diane episode of Cheers.)
In any case, comedies tend to stand or fall on the quality of the players, and in Forgetting Sarah Marshall the quality is very high indeed. Leading off is Segel, a younger and (somewhat) sexier version of Rodney Dangerfield. Whether floundering around on a surfboard, eating giant salad bowls full of Froot Loops or writing songs about what a worthless pig he is, Segel is a winning comedian. Russell Brand is even funnier as Aldous. So cluelessly egomaniacal that he thinks Sarah would be delighted to give up her acting career to become his head groupie, Aldous nevertheless shows flashes of wit, as when he answers the query of a toadying waiter (Jonah Hill) as to whether he’s listened to his demo CD. “I thought about it, but I decided I’d rather just go on living my life,” Aldous says. Mila Kunis is utterly ravishing as Rachel, and there are sharp comic performances by a large supporting cast, including Apatow regular Paul Rudd as a space-case surfer dude, DeVone McDonald as an eccentric hotel bartender, Jack McBrayer as a straitlaced newlywed, and the aforementioned Hader and Hill. Kristen Bell is also very good, but she has the handicap of playing the least interesting character as written (in itself indicative of the film’s agenda).
Having praised Forgetting Sarah Marshall for remaining so likable despite its in-your-face raunch, I have to get up on my critic’s soapbox and ask whether the stunt was necessary in the first place. Apatow and his cronies are famous for pushing the envelope a little farther with each successive movie, including sight gags that would have ghettoized these films in X-rated theaters only a decade ago. This brand of comedy appeals to the eternal adolescent in moviegoers, especially male moviegoers, yet it’s too brazen for real adolescents to see without a parent or guardian (and I wouldn’t take the 14-year-olds of my acquaintance to see Forgetting Sarah Marshall). Frankly, I remember a time when Animal House felt liberating, and I’m not at all sure that Forgetting Sarah Marshall represents an advance. I also have to note that, personally, I find the movies that Apatow merely produced (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Superbad) more likable than the movies he actually wrote and directed (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up).
Whereas Forgetting Sarah Marshall is totally and pruriently American in concentrating on the physical act of sex, Pierre Salvadori’s Hors de Prix (Priceless)—released in France in 2006 but only coming to the U.S. early this year—is oh-so-European in presenting the cold-eyed mechanics of love for sale. Both films share the basic themes of sexual hanky-panky in luxurious resort hotels (Biarritz and Monte Carlo in Priceless’ case) and the triumph of true love in the end. The basic difference between the two films is that, in Priceless, the luxury itself and how to obtain it are the point, simultaneously making the film much classier and much, much more cynical than Forgetting Sarah Marshall.
The protagonists of Priceless are Jean (Gad Elmaleh), an overworked barman and hotel factotum in Biarritz, and Irene (Audrey Tautou), a golddigger staying in a suite with her current sugar daddy, Jacques (Vernon Dobtcheff). Through one of those mixups only French farceurs can pull off with aplomb, Irene—who usually has an unerring nose for big bank accounts—mistakes Jean for a tycoon, and takes him to bed while Jacques snoozes unaware in another room. Jean feels that scoring with the alluring Irene is the equivalent of breaking the bank at Monte Carlo, and when Irene comes back to Biarritz the following year, he’s only too happy to maintain the little misunderstanding and bed down with her again, this time in a suite he pretends is his. Unfortunately, Jean and Irene oversleep, the suite’s real tenants show up, and Jean and Irene are thrown out in the street. Jean follows Irene to Monte Carlo, pressing his suit; she exacts an expensive revenge that forces Jean, by necessity, to—shall we say—take up Irene’s trade. Filled with new respect for Jean, Irene sees him as a colleague, then a friend, then finally a love interest. At the same time, however, they must keep pleasing Irene’s new sugar daddy, Gilles (Jacques Spiesser) and Jean’s incredibly demanding sugar mama, Madeleine (Marie-Christine Adam). That, of course, means they have to hide the very fact that they know each other.
There is vastly less skin on display in Priceless than in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but Irene could teach even Aldous Snow a few things about the ins and outs of sex. In a role as far removed as possible from Amelie, Audrey Tautou shines.
Irene is at first profoundly unsympathetic, a character so motivated by money (and, by extension, so cruel to the lovable Jean) that she doesn’t even know what she really likes. “I don’t like caviar, but I’m training myself to like it,” she tells Jean at one point. “I’m sure that once I get used to it, it’s really delicious.” Further on, however, we get to see the humiliations she lives with daily—one scene by a hotel poolside is particularly harrowing—and the kind and ardent heart, too long unacknowledged, that still beats inside her.
In contrast, Elmaleh—one of those perfect deadpan comedians the French are so adept at producing, never mind that he’s Moroccan—is totally huggable from the beginning as Jean. In the first scene, we see Jean as a sad sack expected to do dog-walking duty for all the hotel guests, and so put upon that he can never be sure whether the dog owners are talking to him or the dogs. A latter-day Buster Keaton, Jean is used to scorn, which is why the interest of someone as gorgeous as Irene—even under a misapprehension—is so revelatory to him. Having had something truly fine for once in his life, he wants it for keeps, and Salvadori’s screenplay limns delightfully how Jean gains in confidence and enterprise in pursuit of the woman he loves.
Dobtcheff, Spiesser, and Adam are all splendidly despicable as the various nabobs who regard love and companionship as commodities on a par with a Rolex watch. Adam, who exudes a world-weary elegance suggesting both the latter-day Lauren Bacall and the latter-day Catherine Deneuve, is particularly fascinating as a woman for whom the primary attraction of men is the opportunity to play the woman scorned.
Opulently photographed by Gilles Henry, replete with all the designer brands you ever heard of (and a few which, unless you’re in Donald Trump’s tax bracket, you probably haven’t), Priceless is a delightfully soigné, genially corrupt and cynically optimistic French bedroom farce. For kicks, Irene and Jean probably train their binoculars on the bawdy flounderings of Peter, Sarah, Aldous and Rachel. These Americans, they are gauche, no? (Never mind that Aldous is English.)