Monday, April 21, 2008

Reviewing SARAH MARSHALL, San Diego, Passover, and MORE

Life is a highway, and I've been riding it all weekend long. Yep, seeing as how this year was the rare one in which the first two nights of Passover fell on a weekend, I decided to pack up and truck it down to San Diego to celebrate the seder with Aksel and his family. It was a long trip, and I set out a bit later than I intended, mostly due to being unable to pry myself away from the double-overtime Suns - Spurs Game 1 that was an instant playoff classic. But I arrived in San Diego, or more specifically Chula Vista, without getting lost or any other major incident, luckily enough. We had a nice seder, good food ... and the next day was fun as well, as Aksel, his sister Janice and I saw some of the sites of the Chula Vista area, and then took an impromptu trip down to Sea World. I believe I went to Sea World once when I was like seven, and that was in Florida, so even though it was already a bit late in the afternoon and I was getting nervous about heading home while there was still some light out, I said "dammit all" and agreed to spend a few hours with Shamu and co. So we did just that, spending the afternoon with sharks, walruses, and penguins. Then I set out again, hitting the road for the long drive back to Burbank. All in all though, a fun weekend - definitely a good way to kick off Passover and a nice excuse to get away from Hollyweird for a bit.

- And now I've got basically a week of Passover ahead of me. It still amazes me how the norm in LA seems to be to not keep the holiday in the least. I mean, I think I've accumulated too many years of Passover observance at this point to not observe its no-bread dietary regulations without a huge amount of guilt and self-loathing that would surely hit me if I were to become a true-blue LA Jew. All I know is, it was pretty frustrating this year trying to guage interest in doing something for the seders, whether it was going to an organized event or what have you, and having response be minimal to nil. Since when did one have to be a super-orthodox ultra-Jew to celebrate the holidays and enjoy a little culture and tradition?

- On the other hand, it is kind of a drag to try and keep kosher for Passover, no doubt about that. Especially for those of us who are cooking-impaired, and for those of us whose usual diet consists almost entirely of bread, grain, and wheat-based goods. But what I will say is this: after eight days of eating matzoh, salad, and chicken ... finally gorging yourself on pizza to mark the holiday's end is pretty much the greatest thing ever.

- No real TV stuff to talk about this week, at least in terms of reviews. One thing that a lot of people are debating is the hype / overhype factor going into tonight's return of GOSSIP GIRL. I'm finally all caught up on this season so far, so I feel like I can weigh in ... The show is good, really good - it's well-written, has a great young cast, and is entertainingly soapy without being ridiculously melodramatic. And let's face it - the marketing of the show has been brilliant these last few weeks. Call it annoying if you want, but all those ads brandishing over-the-top exclamations like "OMFG" are doing a great job at drawing attention to the show. And it's to the show's credit that it hasn't really had any OC-like super-huge plot twists yet - when something really big DOES happen, it will feel much more legit than if there hadn't been this slow build. So yeah - all of that stuff about Gossip Girl being a #1 show on iTunes and whatnot really doesn't mean jack - I can tell you firsthand that the only tangible benefit of that standing in the Apple rankings is a bit of good PR. But good PR is exactly what the show needs and what it's getting, so kudos to CW for actually marketing a show correctly for once and making a real effort to grow a franchise. Why oh why couldn't they have done the same for Veronica Mars?


- I don't think the trailers did a great job of conveying just how funny this movie is. I wasn't sure quite what to expect going in, but I remained optimistic - in paper, Sarah Marshall had all the trappings of an A-level flick from the Judd Apatow comedy factory. A former member of the Freaks and Geeks ensemble getting his much-deserved spotlight? Check. A host of Apatow-land guest stars, from Paul Rudd to Jonah Hill? Check. A script that mixes broad comedy with conversational humor that smartly looks into the mind of the post-adolescent male? Check. So I shouldn't have really been surprised - this was another film on par with 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Superbad - a hilarious movie that I daresay had the overall best and funniest script of any Apatow flick to date, thanks to Jason Segal. The point is, this is top to bottom one of the funniest comedies I've seen in a while, and certainly one of the best films of 2008 thus far.

To start, it's just great to see Jason Segal getting the spotlight. I've recently been rewatching some Freaks and Geeks, and on the second run-through, it's amazing how Segal's Nick stands out as perhaps the series' overall most interesting character, responsible for some of the series' funniest and most memorable moments. Who can forget Nick serenading Lindsay with a 100% awkward rendition of Styx's "Lady," for example? So classic. In any case, Segal brings that same awkward, droopy yet overly-expressive energy to this film, and it's a lot of fun to see. Like Seth Rogen in Knocked Up, you get the sense that Segal isn't playing a character too far removed from his own experiences and personality - and that's probably even truer here, where much of the script is supposedly based on Segal's own experiences with bad break-ups. That feeling of authenticity is really on display here - and really, it's all the little details that make things pop. From Segal's rendency to eat cereal from a gigantic mixing bowl, to his spontaneous imitation of Gandalf from Lord of the Rings, to the way he admires himself in the mirror in the morning - the movie instantly grounds itself in a kind of everyday reality that has been the trademark of Apatow's comedies to date. It's that comedy of recognition that helps to make the movie so funny - I mean, who hasn't walked around with a stick and bellowed "You shall not pass!" in their best Ian McKellan voice? Anyone? Anyone?

But I digress - the genius of these Apatow movies is how they deftly mix these very grounded characters and dialogue with moments of really broad, laugh-out-loud comedy. The wackier stuff is present in Sarah Marshall thanks to reliable supporting actors, the kind of people who instantly make you smile when they show up. I mean, who doesn't love Jack McBrayer, aka Kenneth the Page on 30 Rock? In less hilarious hands, his character here - a guy on his honeymoon overwhelmed by the desires of his wife - might have been annoying. But McBrayer is so good at playing naive and befuddled that he never fails to deliver big laughs. Same goes for Paul Rudd - the guy just has awesome comic timing, dating back to his Wet Hot American Summer days. His character here, a stoned-out surf instructer, is actually way funnier than the trailers indicated. Jonah Hill may be a bit of a weak link here, as his character does grate a little by the film's end. Nonetheless, Hill has some funny bits, and delivers some great setups for Russel Brand ...

And Russel Brand, a British comedian, is hilarious in the film as pop-star Aldous Snow. He steals many a scene with his laid-back, sex-guru persona, and some of his lines are simply classic. This guy needs to be in more movies, that much is for sure. Both of our leading ladies are similarly very good in their roles, and do a great job of playing off of Segal and Brand while not being strictly one-dimensional love interests. Kristen Bell is particularly good as the title character, Sarah Marshall. No secret that I've been a big Bell supporter due in large part to my love for Veronica Mars, but it's honestly hard to think of another actress who could have played Sarah with such a great mix of realism and movie-star glamour. Bell paints a pretty vivid picture of a woman at the very beginnings of stardom, who still has one foot in the more mundane world of Segal and his huge bowls of cereal, and one foot in the world of Hollywood and rock stars and paparazzi. I'm sure a big part of Bell's authenticity is that Sarah Marshall probably isn't too far removed from Bell's own experiences as an up-and-comer in Hollywood. Similarly, Mila Kunis does a nice job as a perky resort receptionist who befriends the depressed Segal. I'm sure people will be tempted to knock her, but I thought she was handled the role of rebound-girl well. I always thought she did a good job as Jackie on That 70's Show (which gets a lot of crap, but was a really well-done sitcom in its prime), so it was cool to see her in such a big role.

But really, once again, this movie does such a great job of making depression funny thanks to Segal. A lot has been said about the amount of, um, exposure that Segal enjoys in the film, but it's really makes sense in terms of the plot and character arc that the movie is going for. This is a guy who is pretty emotionally and socially naked - just as you couldn't help but cringe yet laugh as Segal belted out "Lady" in the Freaks and Geeks days, the same holds true here. Without spoiling too much, there is a moment here where Segal is urged to peform a song he's been working on from his pet project - a puppet musical about Dracula (yep, you read that right). Suddenly, in his best Bela Lugosi singing voice, Segal is going all-out, belting out the absolutely hilarious lyrics to his Dracula song with total sincerity and conviction, in front of a room of total strangers who have no clue what they are witnessing. The moment is honestly one of the funniest I've seen on film - and it's partly because of the craziness of the voice and the lyrics and partly because it feels so raw and honest. When Segal puts himself out there, he really puts himself out there.

And that's why I can't recommend Forgetting Sarah Marshall enough. Of all of the Apatow comedies, I think it feels the most honest, the most authentic. It's amazing too because in the end it is, essentially, a romantic comedy, a genre which is notoriously NOT funny. And yet I think I laughed about as much here as I did for 40 Year Old Virgin or Knocked Up ... but I left the theater feeling even more satisfied, because the story felt more authentic and better told. Are there flaws? Sure -- the plot does drag a bit, and the movie does feel a little overly long. The rebound relationship between Segal and Kunis was a little too Nora Effron-romantic comedy-ish for my tastes as well -- it didn't quite gel with the overall tone of the film. But those are mostly nitpicks - the bottom line is this was a hilarious movie and certainly, the reigning king of comedy so far in '08. And holy lord, someone make the puppet Dracula musical as soon as humanly possible.

My Grade: A -

- Okay, happy Monday. Time for a healthy lunch of ... um ... geez Passover is rough.

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