Goofy. Human. Hilarious with a large serving of sex. Using that recipe Judd Apatow produced or wrote a bucket of consistently engaging comedies the past ten years: Knocked Up, Freaks and Geeks, The 40 Year Old Virgin, Superbad, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. Each delivers human-scaled stories about quirky, imperfect men and women dealing with personal issues that assume oversize comic dimensions. Each is separately memorable, but Knocked Up may lead the pack. This movie is, by turns, silly and dead serious in telling us about a career woman, her unlikely boyfriend and the baby she’s having. Knocked Up strongly connected with audiences: Its six-month box office approached $150 million and its DVD enjoys a strong rental life.
Now, a new comedy bearing Judd Apatow’s fingerprints hits the big screen: Forgetting Sarah Marshall. That’s our Smackdown! Does it offer the same mix of oddly endearing gifts that make Knocked Up so distinctive? Has the recipe gone stale?
We see a lot of songwriter Peter Bretter (Jason Segel) and Bretter’s peter in the first few minutes. He’s just out of the shower when his TV-actress girlfriend Sarah (Kristen Bell) shows up to end the relationship with Peter. She’s found someone else. It’s funny and uncomfortable as Peter struggles with the aftermath, cruising the bars and melting down at work. He can’t make any progress on his side-project: a Dracula musical featuring puppets. At this point Peter takes a trip to Hawaii to get over Sarah, only you-know-who is checked into the same resort with Mr. Someone Else (Russell Brand). Along the way Peter connects with members of the Apatow Repertory Players (Paul Rudd, Jonas Hill, Bill Hader) and resort hostess Rachel Jansen (Mila Kunis). All these recipe ingredients complicate the process of forgetting Sarah Marshall. The script Jason Segel wrote and Judd Apatow produced ties the loose ends plausibly while showing Count Dracula has a future in musical theatre.
The Defending Champion
Knocked Up plays on the notion that opposites attract, but need a lot of work to stay attracted. Alison Scott (Katherine Heigl) and Ben Stone (Seth Rogan) move in very different orbits: She works in TV and he’s hanging out with slacker pals and not doing much else. They meet the night Alison celebrates her promotion and she gets pregnant after their one-night stand. That’s when the drama in this comedy evolves: Ben has to grow up, Alison faces the big questions about life and her relatives must learn to trust and accept this bearded addition to the family circle. This transition is propelled by lots of raunchy humor. Judd Apatow directed his screenplay.
Both films are similar in approach and reach. Many of the creative players worked on both movies and they look for more than laughs. Make no mistake: You’ll laugh, even at the crude stuff — and there’s plenty of that.
Strong — and familiar — casts interact nicely. Their eccentric characters provide texture and dimension. Knocked Up made Katherine Heigl a movie star. Seth Rogan is loopy and earnest as her unlikely love interest. Leslie Mann is funny and touching as Alison’s anxious sister. Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell and Russell Brand handle their spots especially well in Sarah Marshall. The movie would not have held together without Jason Segel’s lumpy collection of doubts and desires.
There’s a difference in tone between the two films. Both deliver a mix of laughs reined in by serious undertones, but Sarah Marshall spends more time mining its protagonist’s uncertainties and foibles.
Two very likable movies with similar strengths. Which one offers the more nourishing serving of comedy with a side of reality? Read on.
Both operate on a higher level than most comedies visiting the cineplex. Knocked Up and Sarah Marshall are kind-spirited and life-affirming at heart, so it becomes a hard choice.
Here it is: Sarah Marshall will do well and it confirms Judd Apatow’s creative impulses. Go see it. It satisfies on several levels even if it tells us nothing fundamentally new about coping with betrayal and loss.
Knocked Up may not break new ground, but it’s consistently funny and addresses a larger issue touching our common humanity. It’s a small margin, but enough to determine our winner, “Knocked Up.”