June 17, 2008

"Forgetting Sarah Marshall"

Here's my review from The American Conservative of the comedy from a couple of months ago:

Ever since the collapse of the Hollywood studio system, film productions have become expensive and time-consuming to get off the ground because each new movie is an independent business enterprise demanding complex negotiations.

If Shakespeare were a film auteur today with all the public acclaim he'd deserve, so much of his time would be tied up taking meetings that he'd be lucky to get a bare dozen of his scripts ever made into movies. Hollywood insiders would gossip about Bill Shakespeare's legendary unfilmed screenplay about Falstaff: every time his people finally hammered out a deal with a funny fat guy -- whether John Belushi, John Candy, or Chris Farley -- the star would drop dead.

Comic screenwriter and producer Judd Apatow has been pursuing a lower cost and quicker business model for making movies. Apatow's resembles a theatre company in which scripts are written to fit the pre-existing talents of his ensemble. When putting together the critically acclaimed but shortlived television series Freaks and Geeks (about high school students) and Undeclared (college students), he assembled a team of funny (but rather funny-looking) young men such as Apatow's alter ego, actor Seth Rogen. When the shows were canceled and nobody else in the business rushed to employ them, Apatow taught them to write screenplays for themselves to star in.

The first film Apatow wrote and directed, 2005's "40 Year Old Virgin" (which took in $109 million at the domestic box office on a lean $26 million budget), featured his team in supporting roles. Rogen finally became a star last year in Apatow's "Knocked Up" ($149 million). Meanwhile, Rogen had outgrown the screenplay he'd co-written about high school seniors, "Superbad," so Rogen's role was taken by his alter ego, Jonah Hill, who looks like his little brother. When it earned $121 million in U.S. theatres, Apatow was declared a brand name.

Now, another Apatow protégé, Jason Segel (Rogen's tall stoner housemate in "Knocked Up"), has penned the consistently funny and sometimes appealing romantic break-up film "Forgetting Sarah Marshall." Segel stars in it himself as a boozy, self-pitying schlub whose TV starlet girlfriend has left him for a cretinous but laciviously charming rock star (played by English comic Russell Brand in his first, and definitely not last, American role).

The cultural import of Team Apatow's popular sex comedies has been much debated among 20-somethings. 20th Century artists and entertainers tended to see their role as shocking the bourgeoisie, but will there eventually be any left to shock? Apatow both continues that trend, concocting news lows in raunchiness, while also preaching ever more openly his traditional values of monogamy, sobriety, and industry.

On the one hand, sounding like a Weimar Era manifesto-writer, Apatow recently proclaimed, "America fears the penis, and that's something I'm going to help them get over… I'm gonna get a penis in every movie I do from now on." Hence, in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," we are treated to the frontal sight of a naked Jason Segel bawling as his girlfriend, played by Kristen Bell of Veronica Mars, dumps him. (Segel recalls that when this actually occurred in his own life, as he emerged from the shower, "All I kept thinking was, 'This is the funniest thing that's ever happened to anybody. I cannot wait until she leaves so I can start writing this down.'")

On the other hand, the plot of "Sarah Marshall," like most films sponsored by Aptaow, a devoted family man, offers an endorsement of bourgeois values, particularly the threat of venereal diseases spread by the promiscuous likes of Sarah's new boyfriend.

Similarly, "Sarah Marshall" is even more adamant than "Knocked Up" in pushing the diligent Apatow's crusade against marijuana. Apatow has said, "My main intention is to show that drugs lead them on the road to nowhere. … . Every guy I worked with who smokes pot is less funny, or their music got lame." Thus, veteran Apatow ensemble member Paul Rudd plays a Hawaiian surfing instructor whose brain is so baked that his character is not even amusing.

Is Apatow a force for good or bad in our society? Apatow himself can't say. He admits, "And I find that people don't pick up on that [anti-marijuana] message… even if I hit it really hard." More likely, the bongheads sitting on their couches watching his characters sit on their couches smoking dope conclude that their lives must also be worthy of being on DVD.

Rated R for sexual content, language and some graphic nudity.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

25 comments:

Bill said...

Yeah, pot's pretty lame even if it is relatively harmless. But most people don't really care for it past a certain point in life. I think most people who remain stoners well into adulthood actually prefer the "baked" lifestyle, and wouldn't be doing much more without pot.

nohn said...

40 Year Old Virgin sent a very good message, in my opinion. Rogen's Superbad was awful, though I think he is a good actor for the roles he plays. Knocked Up did have a good message, though it was very crude.

testing99 said...

I suspect the raunchiness is to allow the traditional values which Hollywood hates. A bit of sugar to allow the medicine to go down. Hollywood hates, hates, hates the traditional family, morality, fidelity, sobriety, etc. It's made up of people who thought they were way cooler than the ordinary people they came from, in the most part, and has a group-think value of the opposite of those values. Which is why their movies fail, mostly.

They hate the values of their audience along with the audience themselves.

It's no accident that the "conservatives" in Hollywood who embrace traditional morality are either writer-producers (Apatow, Joel Surnow, John Milius, Paul Schrader) who exist outside the social structure, or actors who grew up in either LA or NYC and experienced social ostracism by the "cool set" of Hollywood insider's kids or their equivalent, with strong family ties that keep them outside Hollywood. Adam Sandler, Sarah Michelle Gellar come to mind.

"Conservative" in Hollywood though is just someone who disapproves of being stoned all the time, fooling around on your spouse, or sex change operations (like one of the Wachowskis).

Anonymous said...

Steve writes: "consistently funny and sometimes appealing romantic break-up film".

Rather generous. This movie was insipid and boring. The plot is shallow and terrible. The characters are completely unlikeable and undeveloped. One cliche scene after another in a movie that is both predictable and mind-numbing.

The movie was oddly "Canadian" with a strange mix of lewdness and prissiness throughout, as Sailer notes. Anyone who has seen banal Canadian "blockbusters" like "Going the Distance" would understand. Perhaps Canada's been a trailblazer all along.

David said...

"I'm gonna put a penis in every movie I make from now on!"

89 minutes of raunchiness per 1 minute of moral.

Sounds about right for the Hollywood crowd, "conservative" or not.

David said...

He's "a devoted family man." At home, he shows his family devotion. But for our families, he has little but dick jokes and frontal nudity.

Saharians said...

I wish someone would expand on the culturally subversive aspect of these films, as the main players here are Jews. Or, is this just a coincidence?

Anonymous said...

Well, you got to have the jokes and the moralizing. American Pie had a similar vibe. At the end of the series it's all about the wedding. The mix is the key.

It'd be interesting if they showed the stoner chick magnet 10 years after. (Sounds like they might have with Rudd in this movie). It's not comic to be a rebel or the class clown when your in your thirties.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed it, as I did 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up. I'm looking forward to the next one.

I found myself hoping that he keeps churning them out like Woody Allen. Minus all his issues.

halfbreed said...

Haven't seen "Sarah Marshall" yet, but I thought "Superbad" was the best teen film ever, better than "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and far better than the hugely overrated "Animal House." What made it great was that it captured the unrequited yearnings of those years so well in the persons of its three dweebish protagonists. "Fast Times" focused on (and exagerrated) the rebelliousness and disrespectfulness of high schoolers but pretty much missed the pathos; "Animal House" tried its hardest to be wild-and-crazy in a way that teenagers want to identify with, and was nothing much more than an extended John Belushi/Steve Martin-type Saturday Night Live skit. "Superbad" was about more universal experiences: getting picked on by bullies, being intimidated by older people, worrying about making a pass at a girl, drinking to gain courage, making a drunken fool of oneself, having an unrequited crush, having shameful secrets, and compromised friendships. The only false notes in the movie were the scenes with the two cops, who embodied the wild-and-crazy ethos that so many teen movies strive for. But apart from that, it was hilariously real.

Yes, Saharian, Apatow's movies are all written by, directed by, and acted by Jews, for the most part, but they're not subversive message movies the way so many Hollywood movies are. They're not about good black people put upon by evil white racists, or about salt-of-the-earth Jewish mensches hounded by evil Nazis. I didn't see a single villain with a British or German accent, or for that matter, any stiff-necked hypocritical Anglo authority figures, all of whom figure in so many Hollywood productions. Is there off-color humor? Of course, Apatow movies are essentially teen/young adult comedies, what do you expect? But his message is much more we're-all-just-human and much less we're- divided-into-evil-Anglo-businessmen/establishmen-types-versus-good-people-of-color/ Jews/gays/Anglo liberals. I'm as turned off by the latter as anybody, but I don't think Apatow is guilty of that, at least not in the movies I've seen.

robert said...

During the final penis scene in Sarah Marshall, Mila Kunis cracks up - she clearly comes out of character. But it works, because the same thing could easily happen in real life, and the contrast with the usual woodenness of acting is winning. Apatow's respect for improv is a big factor in his success and makes his quick turnaround times possible. I hit all his films and have enjoyed most. Whether or not he's good for society is an open question; I suspect he is.

Anonymous said...

I sure missed the "anti-pot" message of Knocked Up. That was actually the first movie in years that gave me an urge to pick up a bong.

Anonymous said...

"I wish someone would expand on the culturally subversive aspect of these films, as the main players here are Jews."

Why don't you expand on it? I'm guessing the reason you haven't is because, as Steve has spelled out, they aren't subversive. Like he said, despite the raunchiness, the movies always end up supporting traditional values such as monogamy, sobriety, etc.

Second Anonymous

Anonymous said...

"I sure missed the "anti-pot" message of Knocked Up."

Holy crap. Hello? The male lead and his friends are big losers, because they're stoned half the time. They're so out of the loop that they don't realize how behind the curve they are on the idea of a celebrity nudity site. The male lead's father was a stoner too, banging you over the head with how children are influenced by their stoner parents.

Second Anonymous

jbday said...

You're last paragraph Steve, reminded me of when "Beavis and Butthead" first came out. As you have written, Mike Judge was basically saying a generation of fatherless boys produces boys like Beavis and Butthead. Yet those fatherless boys ate the show up without realizing that they were the butt of the joke.

Saharians said...

Second Anonymous ~ I disagree. I think you could argue that they are subversive. Have you actually seen 40 Year Old Virgin? Superbad? Knocked Up? The humour in these films is quite extreme and goes beyond mere bad taste. I know several people who walked out of the theatre during a screening of Knocked Up. And they weren't elderly Christian, Moral Majority-types. Apatow's humour is crass and offensive, and, I suspect, designed to violate the sensibilities of the few remaining traditionalists out there. He and his kind simply can't help it. Arguing that his films promote traditional values is like saying the porn industry promotes romantic love.

Josh said...

I think Sean Penn and Cheech and Chong long ago proved that creating funny but befuddled pot heads does NOT turn kids against pot.Quite the opposite! Is Apatow serious here? As for Apatow's merry band of actors,I coincidentally,via Netflix,finally got a chance to see a show I have long been curious about,Arrested Development. I could not stop the DVD! The show was bizarre,hilarious yes,but with a cast of characters whose weirdness and creepiness,and physical ugliness---cept for Portia Whatever--made you want to run from the room. But you didnt,you stayed! One of the characters was a very homely looking teen,who gets sexually obsessed with his cousin. I wondered at first why this guy,Michael Cera, was chosen for the role--and yes,his obvious Semitic features provided a clue :),cuz he was not easy to look at,but his deadpan and strained delivery made his character work extremely well. He is of course,one of the Apatow group. Obviously the guy behind A.D.,an Ethiopian named Mustafa Mabuta,--OK,just kidding,a Jewish guy named Hurwitz,and Apatow are of the same mind re comedy and prob are friends who influence each other. Is it good for America? Well I hate Apatows work,but may see SuperBad to see Cera,and A.D. was a flop,tho I vow to see every single minute of it. The point? I think the overrated Adam Sandler has jumped the shark and is on his way out,thank God,and the much funnier Apatow will reign for a while,but he'll run out of steam soon enough. The idea that he is transmitting some kind of good values,tho,come on! That makes me think of his Infant Sorrow video,"We've Got to Do Something"!! :)

Anonymous said...

Anyone believeing that, in real life, a Katherine Heigl could drink enough without passing out to screw a Seth Rogan, well, I have some property down in Florida to sell!

And that's what these movies are all about. Nebbishy Jewish guy gets to sleep with the BLOND shiksa. I guess Apatow didn't get any goy ass in college. Me, I went the other way; as one of the token goys at my college, I found the Jewish girls extremely accomodating.

I hate to disagree with Mr. Apatow about drug use and entertainment, but a great deal of tremendous music was written and performed by people stoned to the bejeezus!

Brutus

testing99 said...

Brutus -- musicians are more prone to substance abuse to calm nerves before performances. Think about it.

Nebbishy Jewish guys overlooked by hot women creating entertainment wish fulfillment? Where have I seen that one before? Oh yeah, Superman. And pretty much every other superhero.

It works, because while women prefer the 10% or so of guys who are the super-hot bad boys, the 90% of guys who are not are left looking for entertainment.

Anonymous said...

"as one of the token goys at my college I found the jewish girls extremely accomodating.." Any of you youngsters out there who need motivation to do your best on the SAT's might want to read this...

testing99 said...

I'll note that a lot of the reviewers, both men and women, seemed to really like the Russell Brand character. I haven't seen the movie, so I can't comment.

But I found that interesting. If Apatow wanted the audience to think the stoner Rock guy was a bad choice, he blew it.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, Parker, Coltrane, Hendrix, Joplin, Steve Tyler and Joe Perry (The Toxic Twins!) all needed a taste of the necessary to get up on stage.

Please...

I forget the book I read the story in, but the author relates that the first time he met Charlie Parker, Bird was sitting on a couch naked, the spike in his arm, bottle of bourbon in front of him, getting a blowjob from a hooker. I guess too much stimulation wasn't enough for him! Or, as is the true case with a lot of artists, it helped keep the demons at bay.

Anon, when I asked her why she mostly dated (read: slept with) only goyim, a lovely Jewess explained it all to me after a particularly enjoyable encounter. "If you want the money and peace with Mom and Dad, you'll have to marry some guy named Morty with no hair on his head but plenty on his back, and who has problems getting it up. You have to have your fun before that. And you Catholic boys don't seem to have as many mommy issues as Jewish boys." Your advice has always rung true for me; smart girls are way more fun than dumb girls.

Brutus

free love and marxism said...

"And you Catholic boys don't seem to have as many mommy issues as Jewish boys." - Brutus

OK, now we know you're making this up. I have to wonder why Steve is allowing cyberbation fantasies these days - must be desperate for readers.

Anonymous said...

Free Love & Marxism, I guess you never watched Seinfeld...

Seamus said...

On the other hand, the plot of "Sarah Marshall," like most films sponsored by Aptaow, a devoted family man, offers an endorsement of bourgeois values, particularly the threat of venereal diseases spread by the promiscuous likes of Sarah's new boyfriend.

Huh? The threat of venereal diseases is now a bourgeois value?