I think Forgetting Sarah Marshall might be my favorite of the Apatow genre, surprisingly. Surprisingly both because I forgot it even was a Judd Apatow joint and also because the preview made it look sort of stupid: the protagonist, a sad-faced straight man played by Jason Segal, needs to “forget” Sarah Marshall (Kristin Bell) after she dumps him for Aldous Snow, an amazing send-up of the cheesy British rocker stereotype, and so he goes to Hawai’i to try to get over it with the zany help of a zany collection of zany characters. On the surface, thus, a bro-comedy that puts the type in typical, a sequence of jokes and caricatures strung into a plot reducible to the preview’s abstraction: dude gets broken up with by his bitch of a girlfriend and needs to get over it by finding true love with a differently hot babe.
The movie makes a lot of hay by exactly this narrative. It is this story, basically, because those things happen in it. But there’s also a moment in this movie that brought me up short, that made me think more about how self-conscious the Apatovian might actually be, how much work — as opposed to pandering — it actually does, and how well it might actually understand that work. It happened during a confrontation between the protagonist and his evil bitch of an ex — one of the first times they actually talk — when he suggests, in a kind of passive aggressive way, that if only she could have tried a little harder, maybe things could have worked out.
She pulls him up so very, very short. “Try?” she hisses through tears. “Don’t you dare tell me I didn’t try; I did, you were just too stupid to notice.” She’s shaking, but steady as an iceberg. And when she relates the many things she had done to try and save their relationship (a variety of self-help classes and therapists), it isn’t so much the list as the sudden blast that her icy seriousness casts over the entire movie as we’ve so far learned to watch it. I’m serious; this overturns the entire Sarah Marshall narrative as it‘s been presented to us so far: not only does she turn out to be a real human being, but suddenly and dramatically dumping her pain on the screen reveals to him (and to us) what a child he (and by extension we) have been, how willing he‘s been to allow her to simply exist as a cliché, a stereotype, and an abstraction, anything but a human being. He’s unwilling to bend, yet, but also silent, unable to respond. He retreats to lick his wounds. The scene ends.
The movie, I think, is different after that point. Nothing, after all, has encouraged or allowed us to think of her as a real person so far; the comedy has been on his pain, his dramatic, over-the-top (and funny for that reason) masochistic revelry, and she has correspondingly been — exactly as things like the preview have lead us to expect — the caricature of the bitch girlfriend that takes off with the caricature of a crazed hedonistic rock star. That’s how he’s read the situation, and that’s how — through his eyes — the movie has shown us how to read it. But there is nothing to say to this, for him or for us, and since nothing has prepared us for her as a real character, it calls a great deal of what we‘ve seen and felt into question: suddenly, all the laughs and wallowing in self-pity we’ve shared with Segal stand accused of the same lack of seriousness that had made her such an alien creature to him. Like him, we failed to see because we weren’t looking, and now, suddenly, we have to look at our own blindness.
We thought this movie was just a comedy. But this is exactly the point: Jason Segal couldn’t notice that she, with all her faults, was a person, because he could see her only by reference to the Apatow comedy that his life already was. In such a comedy, women have their choice of whore or Madonna (if translated into a new millennial idiom), and so, discovering her to be no Madonna, damned her for the whore she was stuck being. But when she makes him look into her depths, he has nothing to say.
After all, while she does leave him for a hilarious caricature (which proves to be as disastrous a rebound as his were), it is significant that she leaves him for a real musician. As we come to realize, she was right to do so. Jason Segal isn’t a real musician, and he isn’t even as much of an adult as Aldous Snow: because he’s unable to move on from the safety of the crappy job he hates, and is unable to recognize and act on his own neurotic passivity, he poisons their relationship drop by drop by drop. And while he was rottin happy in a rut, she struck out and grabbed at what she though would make her happy, and why shouldn’t she? He couldn’t seem to do that; he just wanted to stay in his man-cave, eating cereal and doing a job he hated, piling everything on her, even while refusing to admit that he was really with her (it’s significant, for example, that her entrance in the first scene has to be preceded by him hurriedly cleaning up their apartment: when she’s not around, that he makes a mess when she’s not there to tell him not to because that’s what he really wants; they share a space not as a couple, but as little boy and mommy telling him to clean his room). But until she says so, and until his silence confirms her, we never understood that the joyous cereal-eating vision of pre-lapsarian boyhood in the first scene was the poisonous stew that rotted their relationship. In other words, the man-cave boy fantasies that come back in I Love You, Man (a massively more insubstantial movie than this one) are shown — as they were in The 40-Year Old Virgin — to be a trap. Wouldn’t it be nice to spend your life playing in your cave and eating cereal? Maybe not, for it is exactly this infantilization that — as the seven-days in the apartment sequence shows — causes him to lose sight of her, if he ever did see her at all.
In this sense, there’s something quite eloquent in his silence to her sudden invocation of personhood, which speaks to both the strengths and limitations of the Apatovian genre. The movie’s excellence, I think, comes from the fact that it points outside of its own Apatoviosity, but it also doesn’t quite actually transcend it. It’s still not a movie that has room, after all, for a female character that has actual depth, and the bulk of the film is still the effort to milk the boy-cave fantasy for all that it’s worth (even Mila Kunis’ character only tells us about her pain while Jason Segal’s we experience). But, that said, it’s also a movie that understands its own limitations enough to make them the focus of the narrative: Jason Segal’s problem is that he’s living in a comedy, but he doesn’t know how to laugh at it.
Which is to say, this isn’t so much a comedy about pain as an exploration of how we hide our pain behind the comedy, how a certain kind of joy becomes a way of protecting ourselves from having to grow, and as such, a performance of its own dilemma. This is why, for example, the movie has to be set in Hawai’i: Polynesia has long served as a metaphor for forgetting the traumas of modernity since at least Melville’s Typee, and ostensibly shallow comedies from Ford’s Donovan’s Reef to Adam Sandler’s 50 First Dates have continued to play with the theme. In the south pacific, we awake from the nightmare of history to the primal reality of human sensuality. Etc. This is movie, however, which not only recognizes the falsity of that vision, but thinks about what kind of dream that is, where it comes from, and what it does: Jason Segal has gone to an island, but as Bell later tells him, this was exactly his problem before: “you wouldn’t get off your little island,” she reminds him, instead doing things like wearing sweat pants for a week and eating cereal all day.*
In any case, while the idea of “forgetting” is the very fantasy he’s trying to sell himself, it’s also the last thing he actually wants to do: he goes to Hawai’i to get away from her, to forget, but he also goes there because he wants to revel in his pain, going not simply to Hawai’i but to her particular resort (leading to the zany set-up of “accidentally” ending up at the same resort as his ex). It’s no accident, in other words; as the changing backgrounds on his step-brother’s computer nicely reflect, the act of getting away to Hawai’i has done nothing but change the background while leaving the basic picture the same (changing the background, in fact, precisely so that the picture can remain the same).
The movie is written full of light touches like that — who knew Jason Segal had it in him? — and another favorite of mine is the scene, an early one, when Jason Segal first really notices Mila Kunis’ character, when the movie starts to become the comedy we knew it was going to be. She’s been very nice to him again and again — though simply sympathizing with another wayfaring pilgrim in the storm — but when she welcomes him into the hotel restaurant, he tells her with a distinct tone of sudden recognition in his voice, how pretty she looks or how nice her dress is or something. What he says, though, is not the point: he’s signaling to her that he might like to be with her, and by this, he means he would like to have sex with her. Not that everything is reducible to sex, of course; in fact, the movie has established that sex is exactly not what this is about, a point it continually hammers home again and again through the character of Aldous Snow (for whom all life is a metaphor for fucking). And the movie has already had some fun with the unspoken open secret of sex banter, in the earlier scene where he tells two women that he’s just met that he would very much like to have sex with one of them and this line — by its unexpected honesty — actually succeeds. And she, at this point, is only interested in him as a sad case in whom she recognizes, I think, a similar kind of pain as her own.
But complementing her on her dress manages to be completely true (she does look great) only by indexing the myth that’s being sold: as the scene progresses, we see that every single hotel employee is wearing the same dress. On Hawai’i, the fantasy of amnesia is already always part of a package being sold to its customers, and Segal is only the latest customer. He — and we — haven’t realized it yet, but we’re beginning to.
Similarly with the idea of music in the movie. One narrative in the film is the self-serving one Segal sells himself: while he has a secret musical opus within him, Bell doesn’t understand him, and therefore she’s a terrible bitch who’s wrong for him. Now, this narrative is partly right: when he plays his Vampire song to her, she tries but does not understand it, and this is central to why they have to break up. It shows that they are wrong for each other. And it’s also true that Kunis is right for him precisely because she listens to his vampire song and responds in the right way. But the problem exactly in Sarah Marshall: she doesn’t understand his music, but she is also quite correct not to understand it, because it isn’t real, because it’s a fucking musical about vampires. It’s absolutely ridiculous, and when he plays the song for her — Dracula wailing in a ridiculous East European accent — she’s exactly as baffled with it as any normal human being would be. It’s preposterous, yet he seems to be serious. Any sane human being would be exactly as bemused or confused as she is.
Kunis, on the other hand, shows herself to be “right” for him because she helps make his music happen, but she does this precisely not by understanding it, but by showing him what’s wrong with it: when she laughs at it, she shows him that his melodrama isn’t tragic, it’s comedic, and for the first time he starts to understand why. Sarah Marshall couldn’t do that for him, and that, it turns out, is what he needed; the neurosis may have been his, but she (an overdramatic actress with the same problem, I think) simply wasn’t the person to help him get over it. Kunis, on the other hand, came to Hawai’i for some random reason, but she understands the myth for what it is now, and is thus able (in a way Bell wasn’t) to show him that being funny is funny, but it isn’t real, and that he needs to be real.
The variety of ridiculous bros that populate the landscape serve this same function, their ridiculousness becoming increasingly apparent to Segal as he comes closer to seeing (through them) his own ridiculousness for what it is. Paul Rudd’s character, for instance, shows us a dark side of the fantasy of amnesia; he’s forgotten everything (he too is running away from a break up), but he’s taken it much too far: since memory is how we function, he can’t function. And when Aldous Snow does gets Segal’s music, we suddenly realize that getting his music wouldn’t be a good thing, that self-important reveling in pain is a pretty stupid thing to do (and the idea of “getting my music” as a metaphor for real connection is repeatedly skewered by the waiter character, who desperately lusts after Aldous and tries to connect with him in exactly this ludicrously flawed way).
Aldous Snow, after all, is hilarious because he’s a walking cartoon and he’s that because he’s utterly humorless about it: as has Segal, he performs comedy without realizing it’s funny, and as such, is trapped within the joke. So when Segal accidentally puts his fantasy of violence into action, surfing over his rival and knocking him out, he both realizes what he’s done (and has become) and takes steps, for the first time, to undo it: fishing his rival out of the water and carrying him to shore is a metaphorical step out of his self-created womb. But he actually comes to escape his own narrative (“ helpless bro being saved by love of a good woman from the tragedy of having been dumped by a bad one”) by laughing at it. On shore, for instance, after having pulled Aldous out, he cries out that the piece of coral in his leg is “rapin’ my leg” and Segal smiles a little. The guy is ludicrous, after all (and the line is just one more of his constant sexualizations of everything), but until now, Segal has been unable to see it, because he sees the world the same way. But this (since Aldous is a dream worked self-image) is the first smile of the movie that’s a real laugh at himself, and it signals a profound sea change in his ability to stand aside and ironize his own failings and fears. As the movie continues, he creates increasing distance between himself and Aldous, separating himself from the boy-child for whom relationships are reducible to sex (which is where he started) to the point where he can have his own kind of personal triumph: he quits his job to put on his Dracula musical, but he does it as a puppet show and a comedy. Once he realized it was funny, in other words, that he could separate himself from his pain by laughing at it, he can move on, and does. And this makes him, for the first time, an object not of pity and sympathy for Kunis, but a human being worth spending time with.
As my telling of it illustrates, this is still a story about men in which women are the stage dressing used to show us something about men. Most of the time, they don’t exist as characters; the ocean-as-womb metaphor that pervades the movie, after all, isn’t even about real wombs (or the human beings that happen to possess them) but, rather, about the experience and the problem of being male which used women as its vocabulary. And while every male character in the film is a different dream reflection of the protagonist’s fantasies and fears and fears about manhood, the women in the film largely signify as black boxes. But what saves it for me — as with a novel like Heart of Darkness — is that it knows this and makes this black boxedness its subject: the main character grows up precisely by coming to realize the seductive danger of the fantasy he inhabits.
Marlow never sees outside the Heart of Darkness, of course. Conrad shows us his blindness as a way of thinking about the limits of human understanding but he does so — as Achebe famously complained — at the cost of re-instating the idea of Africa as unknowable for readers who didn’t care to note his excessive subtlety. In a way the same is true here; it’s quite possible to continue blissfully through this movie without noticing exactly where the narrator’s transformation comes from. It is possible to think, for example, that Jason Segal simply went to Hawai’i, was reborn, met a new girl, and got a new job, thereby locating the original problem securely outside of himself. But it is to the movie’s credit that it’s smarter than that. And at the very least, this is a movie that (unlike Conrad’s ultimately pessimistic vision) can at least imagine its epistemic black boxes as people too.
After all, while Kunis’ role in the movie is, on one level, to be Jason Segal’s savior, to be the new girl that will make him forget his pain, she is also the person who refuses to simply kiss him and make it better. She is the person who tells him that he needs to get himself correct first, that he simply can’t be with anyone until he’s figured out what he needs to figure out. She’s right. And she’s right because she has her own back story, her own story of pain and growth, a story which exists in subtle counterpoint to Segal’s.
I want to close, then, with a pair of twinned scenes late in the movie that help to show how this counterpoint works. The second is the surfing showdown between Segal and Snow (the conversation they have before the accident), and this is, ostensibly, the payoff scene, the protagonist’s turning point. At first, the men are completely unable to confront each other except through the mis-vocabulary of romantic comedy: while Segal sees Aldous Snow as a villainous rival of the sort Hugh Grant played in Bridget Jones, Aldous is completely oblivious to everything (he seems to think he’s Segal‘s buddy). The asymmetrical rivalry then turns into an opportunity for reflection on obliviousness: when Segal realizes how blind Aldous is, he realizes how blind he’s been; by gazing at an external version of himself — and laughing at it — he’s suddenly able to externalize that part of himself that he needs to see outside of.
But the first scene, which ostensibly sets this one up, is interesting in its own right. We see Kunis and Bell confront each other in the hotel lobby, and in sharp contrast to the way the man-children struggled to even find a point of reference to converse, the women’s conversation is deeply structured by a variety of unspoken but completely clear subtexts. They are respectful, sympathetic even, but they are not warm: like opposing gunfighters who have everything in common but where they stand, they size each other up with both sympathy and a consequent recognition of their necessary enmity. This is interesting, in other words, because they are neither sisters of pants (traveling or otherwise), nor “frenemies,” nor are we seeing a girl fight: they are playing a game with each other that both thoroughly understand, meaning they both understand each other and understand their difference from each other. Aldous Snow doesn’t exist for Segal except as a dream/fantasy reflection of his own desires and fears, but these women both are people and see each other as people, having a simultaneous lack of desire to cause unnecessary harm to anyone they can sympathize with and no inclination to sacrifice their own interests in the name of that empathy. They have full willingness to use every ounce of psychological leverage available to them, but it’s leverage they acquire precisely from understanding how they are alike and how they are different.
Their meeting, in other words, is a duel, and a duel between equals; when they comment on how pretty each other is, the antipathy is delicious precisely because the statements are both true and beside the point. You are beautiful, bitch, but I will fucking kill you. In other words, it might as well be John Wayne commenting on the size and caliber of his opponent’s gun in Rio Bravo, or (perhaps more familiarly to you, you philistines) the scene where Omar and Brother Mouzone confront each other in season four of The Wire. Pelecanous consciously reflected the Leone trope of “nice gun you got there” when he made the two in The Wire comment on each other’s pieces, and it does the same work as it did for Leone or Wayne: by comparing their phallus substitutes, they both acknowledge their similarity by analogy (we are both men) and trace out their difference in reality (we are pointing these guns at each other because one of us is going to shoot the other), the difference between similitude in analogy and the basic irreconcilability non-identification of an understood otherness. In other words, it’s a conversation structured by the acknowledgement that other people exist, people who are like you but are not you: both might be men, but (unlike Segal’s conversation with Alsous, in which neither can acknowledge an “other”) Omar and Mouzone are different men. The same is true of Bell and Kunis: both are women, but they are different women, individuals, and their differences signify not types of commodity (as the blonde-brunette distinction, for example, becoems legible in commodity market terms) but the profundity of consciousness, the fact that being me means not being you and vice versa.
All of which is to observe one thing: while this a movie whose narrative is myopically fixated on the transformation and growth of a man, and it makes “woman” the catalyst for that growth (as the genre demands), it also locates in particular women the actual knowledge that Segal so painfully struggles to acquire. In other words, while it is interested in how men make women into black boxes, as Conrad was with respect to Africa (and as such, is located in the consciousness of the blind), it also wants to understand and address what Conrad never did: the knowledge of blindness possessed by those who are not seen.
* In that “seven days of sweat pants” sequence, for instance, the final day is Jason Segal wearing a mockup costume he’s made for himself and replaying, for the camera, Gandalf’s confrontation with the Balrog in the Lord of the Rings: “You Shall Not Pass!” Exactly right: while at this stage of the movie, he’s refusing to move forward, denying himself the ability to grow up by retreating into cinema, the Gandalf character in that scene will, shortly, be killed and resurrected, exactly as Jason Segal later will.