I’ve seen altogether too much of Jason Segel. Not just because the film Forgetting Sarah Marshall, CONSOOMED by your humble author last night for the first time just thirteen years after its 2008 premiere, both begins and ends with full-frontal scenes of Segel’s personal equipment, but also because he has appeared in seemingly fifty percent of the random media serving as background noise in this house. He was part of How I Met Your Mother and is a reliable bet to appear in any of the “Apatowverse” movies.
About those films, which have woven themselves into the fabric of American psuedo-culture the same way Seinfeld and Friends did two decades before: Some of them are very funny (The 40-Year-Old Virgin), some are uncannily perceptive (Superbad) and one of them verges on being genuinely artistic (Get Him To The Greek, the only Apatow film that would have piqued the interest of Joseph Campbell or Robert Bly).
There’s always been something about the entire oeuvre that has annoyed me, however, and after seeing Forgetting I believe I can now articulate it in reasonable fashion.
(NB: I’m not going to bother with character names for this, because I won’t remember a few of them and as is usual with the Apatow films there’s a huge amount of potentially offensive-to-someone whitewashing going on, not least with the Jewish Segel being cast as “Bretter”, which literally means “Briton”.)
The plot in a nutshell for the five people who haven’t seen it: Jason Segel is the background musician for a “CSI”-style showing featuring his girlfriend, Kristen Bell. She dumps him for famous rockstar (and blithe British idiot) Russel Brand. Through a series of wacky coincidences, Segel ends up staying at the same Hawaiian resort as Bell and Brand, where he falls in love with the desk clerk, played by Mila Kunis. After an endless string of cringeworthy interactions, Brand dumps Bell, who then tries to get back together with Segel, who then confesses the incident to Kunis, who breaks up with him. A year later, Segel’s artistic passion project, a vampire puppet musical, is a raging success. Kunis shows up to see it, and the couple is reunited.
Three of the four central characters are utterly without redeeming virtue and are consistently played for laughs at their own expense. Only Russell Brand (as “Aldous Snow”) possesses what the kids call agency nowadays; after an episode in which Bell hears Segel and Kunis having sex in the next room and then insists on pretending to have massive orgasms on top of a half-awake Brand so the other couple will hear, he tells her that he’s going to leave in the morning. Seeing Segel in the hotel lobby, he describes his trip with Bell as “For me, that one week of it was like – sort of like going on holiday with, I don’t know, I wouldn’t say Hitler but certainly Goebbels. It was like a little holiday with Hitler.”
The audience is continually pilloried with reminders of how worthless the characters are. Bell is an empty-headed, envious moron who is also a poor actress in her “CSI” show. Segel’s creative product isn’t very creative (he repeatedly refers to how little talent is involved in making the soundtracks) but his lifelong dream, the vampire puppet show, is also obviously stupid and only worthwhile if your tolerance for ironic enjoyment rivals Jimmy Page’s ability to process heroin. Even Kunis, the “meet cute” heroine of the story, is both violently obsessed with her street-trash ex-boyfriend and openly dismissive of Segel; in one scene, where Segel doesn’t want to jump over some rocks into the ocean, she does it and yells afterwards, “I can see your vagina from down here!”
The conventions of the Apatowverse dictate that there has to be some obvious disdain for Christians as well; in this case, it’s a newlywed evangelical couple where the husband is morally rigorous but the wife hopes desperately to be sodomized and abused on her wedding night. Their sexual incompatibility is played for laughs for three-quarters of the film, at which point Russell Brand takes the husband aside and instructs him on how to “fuck like a rockstar”. When we next see the couple, he is aggressively kissing her and she is clearly thrilled. This is probably meant to be a callous commentary on how Jesus freaks are better off getting a bit of real freak in their lives, but for someone who is familiar with the Bible in actuality and/or tuned in to traditional story archetypes it actually comes across as Brand’s character, who is the only morally consistent person in the main quartet, serving as a “second King” for the young man straight out of the Iron John story. Another likely unintentional lesson of the film: these virginial-but-dirty-minded Christians are the only couple to finish the film in complete satisfaction with each other.
For everyone else, there’s nothing but a sort of deeply misogynistic misery. After Segel plays a sort of head game with Bell intended to make her unhappy, he tells his friend “If I know her, that’s ruined her whole day.” We then immediately cut to a montage of Bell having acrobatic and kinky sex with Brand minutes later. The messages:
0) Segel didn’t know Bell at all, even after a long relatonship;
1) Bell is basically a slut who is dead inside.
A subplot involves Kunis’ regret at having posed topless for a photo that was then posted on the wall of a bar; Segel has to get that photo off the wall in order to prove his affection for her. Again, there’s a clear set of implications: In previous relationships with her tatted-up boyfriend, Kunis was dirty and promiscuous, but Segel is going to clean her up and “upgrade” her into long-term relationship material. There’s no reason for this subplot to exist; like the continual closeups of Uma Thurman’s feet in a Tarantino film, the topless-photo conceit is a degradation fetish enabled by artistic power.
After seventy minutes or so of being dragged through the vacant, sordid minds of these characters, the viewer would be forgiven if he desperately wants to join Russell Brand on his limo out of town. Brand’s last line is characteristic: he sees the limo driver, an older woman leering seductively at him, and he declares to Segel and no one in particular: “I’m going to fuck her.” We are meant to laugh and shake our heads on this — rockstar doing rockstar things! — but there’s a greater lesson here. Like the Christian couple in the film, and like various examples observed by the title characters in Voltaire’s Candide and Johnson’s Rasselas, Brand’s character is following a normal and productive, a human, course of life. His view of sexuality, while not pious, is healthy and straightforward. He sees attractive women, and he wants to have sex with them. End of story.
Not so for our remaining trio. With Brand’s departure, Bell wants attention from someone, anyone, and Segel is willing to oblige. She wants to have sex, not because she desires Segel but because she wants validation. So we have an episode, not quite played for laughs but also not quite played for pathos, where they try various means for Segel to get the necessary erection. She ends up blowing him for a period of time later described as “10-15 seconds” but there’s no response from the boiler room. They part company, both dissatisfied.
In the plot, this off-putting episode is intended to show us how Segel has finally “forgotten” Bell and is now focused on Kunis. Yet this falls flat, because the obvious subtext is too obvious: these are two irretrievably broken people, whose approach to sex is as broken and unnatural as Brand’s is straightforward and the Christian couple’s is human. And how could it be otherwise? We’ve spent an hour and a half being dragged through a dark mud thick with depravity and dysfunction, with the occasional sight gag or Russell Brand quip so we can pretend we’re having fun. The scene is merely the second of three in the film where Segel confronts women with a less-than-erect penis; the script was written by Segel himself, so presumably there’s another subtext there.
The relentless limpness of these scenes, in all senses of the word, drains Forgetting Sarah Marshall of any value it might otherwise have. Except for this: as with the “fart scene” in an infamous Judith Krantz novel,
It takes bad art to teach us how good art gets done. Knowing that the dithyrambs have gone on long enough, Mrs Krantz has tried to undercut them with something earthy. Her tone goes wrong, but her intention is worthy of respect. It is like one of those clumsy attempts at naturalism in a late-medieval painting – less pathetic than portentous, since it adumbrates the great age to come. Mrs Krantz will never be much of an artist but she has more than a touch of the artist’s ambition.
In this film, and in all their others, Segel (et al.) and Apatow have the artist’s ambition to produce something more than a mere sketch comedy, and that’s why we get these earthy moments. They never succeed, whether it’s the “period blood” scene that threatens to derail Superbad or the hugely unpleasant impregnation scene with Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogen in Knocked Up. Shame, really. It’s not enough for Apatow to make people laugh; he also wants to make people think. But he doesn’t have the chops to make it stick.
Which is a shame, because when this sort of thing works, it really works: think of the scene in Snatch where Tyrone is tortured and abused into revealing the identity of his partners in their abortive bookie heist. Tyrone is one hundred percent played for laughs up to that point: he’s grossy fat, he’s a terrible driver, he’s slow-moving and slow-witted with just the occasional flash of perception, which is funny because you don’t expect it.
Yet as soon as Brick Top gets him in the pit with the dogs, all of the humor disappears for thirty brutal seconds and Tyrone becomes an undoubtedly real person. We are encouraged to believe that Tyrone will be fed to Brick Top’s pig farm while he is still alive, a fate worse than immediate death. Yet the next scenes warp right back to comedy, with Avi and “Bullet Tooth Tony”. The end result of the Tyrone scene is to sharpen the edge of the humor that follows, a deft trick played a second time at the end of the film when most of the killing happens but Turkish becomes unexpectedly rich thanks to his willingness to get medical help for a sick dog.
Perhaps I’m being too unkind to Apatow and his cronies. He does have one successful attempt to integrate pathos with comedy, in Get Him To The Greek, the considerably superior sequel-of-sorts to Forgetting Sarah Marshall. At the end of that film, Russell Brand is threatening to kill himself by jumping off a hotel roof, but upon being talked out of it he decides to indulge his ego and perform a stunt jump into a pool… which ends with him breaking his arm on the pool’s edge. His assistant wants him to go to the hospital, but the man has a show that must go on:
They’re all here to see me. I feel nervous, it’s good to feel something. I love this, it’s all I’ve got… and you. I owe you one mate. See you on the other side.
The problem with Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and a plurality of modern comedy cinema, is that it is designed to make you feel nothing. The humor is dead, vacant, inhuman. Furthermore, in the service of our modern catechism there is maximum effort put into stripping everything of meaning. Of course the sexual interactions between our various main characters are drained of blood and passion and interest: if we let them mean anything, then it would get in the way of whatever arrangement they found themselves in next.
Which is how we get to the crumbling keystone of today’s sexuality and relationships: We desperately want whatever we have with our person-of-the-moment to be deeply, truly special. That’s a human desire, and normal. But in our heart of hearts we know that we are just another customer in the service line, and in any event we are not that special, so how could this be? So we search our past, and that of our partners, to ensure that their past fumblings were no more spiritual, no more ecstatic, no more human, than what we have with them now. If you do this right — if you get your head around the modern belief with the same facility demonstrated by the plusgoodthinkers in Brave New World — then the fifty previous bedmates of tonight’s Tinder date will amount to nothing more emotionally significant than the fifty trips a Honda Civic will make to the Jiffy Lube in the course of a 200,000-mile lifetime.
Ask anybody who’s worked in a Jiffy Lube, and they will tell you: they only remember the disasters, the missing drain plug, the blown engines, the crumbling oil filter. So these Apatow movies are merely documents of a sexual Jiffy Lube in which the characters are both clients and workers. It’s no wonder the films feel so empty. It’s no wonder so many of us feel so empty.
Incidentally, and to extend the metaphor here, there’s a factory service manual available if you want to avoid this kind of misery. Like most service manuals, it’s obscure in parts and confusing in others, but if you follow the instructions to the best of your ability you’ll get a solid result. As is the case with most cars, you’ll want to get on that manual as soon in your lifetime as you can manage it, to prevent wear, tear, and damage. You can find it on Amazon, in your local bookstore, and in most motel nightstands. It’s called the King James Version. Not all of you will have seen it. We are in the process of erasing this book, and its thorny, uncompromising message, from our collective conscious. We will see how that goes. In any event, you are not yet prohibited from picking the KJV up for a while. It is harder to get to know than Sarah Marshall or any of her analogues. Happily, it is also harder to forget.
Did I really write about Miatas again this week? Sort of.