The comedy genre was forever changed in the early 2000s, and much of it was due to Judd Apatow. The Freaks and Geeks executive producer made his feature directorial debut with 2005’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which was warmly received by both critics and audiences but also marked a significant change of pace for the comedy genre as a whole. Instead of high-concept antics or heavy starpower, Apatow populated his film with a bounty of young talent, let improvisation lead many of the scenes, and concocted a deadly mixture of R-rated raunch and James L. Brooks-esque emotional truth.
But 40-Year-Old Virgin was just the beginning, as Apatow would go on to produce a number of other tonally similar comedies that shaped and molded the genre, including 2008’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall.—which was released a decade ago today. For this film, Apatow mentored Freaks and Geeks actor Jason Segel, who mined his own personal life to write the ultimate breakup movie. Nicholas Stoller, with whom Apatow had worked as a writer on the TV series Undeclared, was selected to make his directorial debut on the project, and a modern romantic comedy classic was born.
Segel plays Peter Bretter, a composer for a CSI-like procedural TV show called Crime Scene: Scene of the Crime who also happens to be in a five-year relationship with the show’s star, Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell). When Sarah breaks things off rather abruptly, Peter jets off to Hawaii to ease the breakup blues at the behest of his stepbrother (Bill Hader). However, when Peter arrives at a luxurious resort to begin his vacation, he discovers Sarah and her new beau—obnoxious rock star Aldous Snow (Russell Brand)—are staying at the same resort.
This setup could very easily have been fleshed out into a traditional comedy where Peter gets into various hijinks, but along the way wins back his beloved Sarah Marshall. That’s not the story Segel is interested in telling, however. There are hijinks to be sure, and some very well-executed comedic set pieces that make terrific use of a hilarious ensemble that includes Paul Rudd and Jack McBrayer. But what makes Forgetting Sarah Marshall stand out is the emotional earnestness threaded throughout.
Peter starts kind of dating a woman who works at the resort, the more free-spirited Rachel (Mila Kunis), but his emotions during the course the film are complicated—just like in real life. He doesn’t know exactly what he wants, or even needs, right at this moment. He’s kind of a mess, and watching him work out his feelings hits home in a very real way.
But Segel and Stoller are smart enough to ensure that even though Peter is the film’s protagonist, his feelings aren’t the only ones that matter. Rachel had the potential to serve as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but she has her own complexities that add shadings to the story. Even Sarah has a few scenes where we get to know more about what makes her tick and why she ended her relationship with Peter, and they serve to dimensionalize her character while adding context to the relationship at the center of the film. It’s all very complicated, just like life, and that makes the conclusion all the sweeter.
Indeed, this is a movie that ends with a Dracula puppet musical, played very much straight as Peter’s passion project. And it works! It’s really funny and oddly sweet, much like the film itself. This is a movie that’s in touch with emotions on a far deeper level than a lot of other comedies at the time, and it’s a testament to the track that Apatow laid with The 40-Year-Old Virgin and his 2007 follow-up Knocked Up.
One might point to Apatow’s directorial efforts as the game-changers of the comedy genre in the early 21st century, and they certainly are to some degree, but Forgetting Sarah Marshall is a crucial piece of that puzzle. It showed the reach of Apatow’s mentorship, and the murderers’ row of talent that had been working under him in the preceding years that would go on to craft their own unique works. Segel, taking his cue from Apatow, didn’t write a sex-crazed American Pie, but he also didn’t exactly write The 40-Year-Old Virgin either. Forgetting Sarah Marshall feels unique to his own sensibilities.
The same can be said for Stoller, and while his spinoff follow-up Get Him to the Greek lacked the beating the heart that made Sarah Marshall so effective, he and Segel would further blur the lines between comedy and drama in 2012’s underrated The Five-Year Engagement.
There is of course another Apatow production that hit theaters a year before Sarah Marshall, and that’s Superbad. The brainchild of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg was a similar hallmark of the comedy genre, once again blending heart with R-rated humor, but this time under the guise of a story about teen friendship. Tonally, Superbad and Forgetting Sarah Marshall are similar. But the stories they’re telling, and they way they’re telling them, are unique to Rogen/Goldberg and Segel, respectively. And while Superbad may be the one that gets talked about more often, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is just as good, and was just as essential to the comedy landscape to come.
With Sarah Marshall, Segel essentially made a breakup movie that also serves as a terrific romantic comedy, without all the contrived trappings. It’s honest to life, but also makes time for an extended sequence where Peter has to slaughter a pig. And while the comedy genre evolves so quickly it’s sometimes hard to maintain relevance, Forgetting Sarah Marshall holds up tremendously well a decade later as a hilarious, heartwarming, and essential comedy all its own.