For a few minutes, I actually thought Forgetting Sarah Marshall was going to force me to abandon one of my most hallowed critical rules: You have to grant a movie its premise. It makes no sense, the reasoning goes, to grumble that no one would run around a disintegrating Manhattan like the protagonist of Cloverfield and keep his camera running; but assume that he would, and focus instead on what the movie does with the idea.
Still, I couldn't shake the preposterousness of this comedy's starting point: A guy flies to Hawaii to shake off a bad breakup, and there is his ex-girlfriend and her new squeeze. On the same island. At the same hotel.
Then I came around. It's not that the idea started to seem plausible. No, I simply came to understand this as the next (il)logical step in the comedy franchise built by Judd Apatow. Even in his funniest films, like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Apatow is less interested in storytelling than in creating situations in which his actors can do funny often extremely funny things. In this tradition, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, directed by Nicholas Stoller and written by Jason Segel, is like a series of comedy sketches in which plot-development questions (Will the guy get the girl? Will someone change for the better?) prove laughably irrelevant.
The "laughably" part is where Forgetting Sarah Marshall finds its saving grace. Writer Segel also stars as protagonist Peter Bretter, the composer of a CSI-type TV show's ominous underscore, who has been dating the show's star, Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell) for five years. But Sarah dumps him for British pop star Aldous Snow (Russell Brand), inspiring a heartbroken Peter to flee the mainland and, of course, immediately discover the new couple enjoying the tropical splendor.
Along for the ride are several Apatow regulars, including Paul Rudd (as a surf guru) and Jonah Hill (as a resort employee with a man-crush on Aldous), and they all get opportunities for hilarious riffs. Even better is Jack McBrayer, playing a sexually inexperienced newlywed without a clue about honeymoon behavior. Laugh-out-loud moments are precious at the movies, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall isn't stingy with them.
It is not nearly so generous, unfortunately, with a sense of how to put together a story. Peter eventually tries to hook up with Rachel (Mila Kunis), the front-desk clerk, but the mechanics that will pair Boy A with Girl B don't seem to matter. Segel's everyman-child appeal makes him easy to root for, except that the movie can't decide whether Sarah's annoyance at his sweatpants-wearing, cereal-noshing lack of ambition is justifiable or merely bitchy. Clearly an ending will come, but not from any natural character progression rather, when Segel runs out of jokes.
Viewers will have to decide for themselves whether the laughs scored excuse the meandering plot. With as much clever stuff as there is here, it's just stuff formless, shapeless, undisciplined. Some of Forgetting Sarah Marshall may be hard to believe, but the hardest thing to believe may be that it actually employed an editor.