Jason Segel is responsible for two of the most cringe-inducing, hands-in-front-of-your-face moments in the recent history of television, both of which occurred during the sole season of NBC's Freaks and Geeks, on which Segel played bright-eyed burnout Nick Andopolis. On the episode "I'm With the Band," Nick imagined himself an arena-sized drummer behind his 29-piece kit, where, clad in a Kiss T-shirt and green short-shorts, he'd jam along to Rush's "The Spirit of Radio" cranked through NASA-sized headphones. Only, he couldn't keep the beat if it were on a leash, and he spazzed out during an audition, finally breaking down and accepting tearful defeat. Which was nothing compared with his behavior two episodes later, when he wooed Linda Cardellini's Lindsay Weir by sing-speaking along to Styx's "Lady." It's still a singularly heartbreaking and hard-to-watch scene.
Segel's character was created by Paul Feig and nurtured by Judd Apatow, and the actor, an Apatow regular in such efforts as Undeclared and Knocked Up, has more or less offered variations on Nick ever since — the huggable lug or schmaltzy stoner for whom no gesture is too outsized. The guy puts it all out there — and, like, it's all out there, prompting Segel's recent explanation to Entertainment Weekly of how to be properly turgid in an R-rated comedy.
It takes all of five minutes for Segel to drop towel in the new Forgetting Sarah Marshall. His character, Peter Bretter, is on the verge of being dumped by his longtime girlfriend, middlebrow TV actress Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell), but she won't actually break up with him until he puts on some clothes. So he doesn't. The way Peter figures it, the moment he puts on some clothes, "it's over."
The scene elicits big, dumb laughs. But there's also some sad, sweet truth to it that carries over throughout the movie. Absolutely, Sarah would have bailed on Peter the moment he put on his pants. So it's up to Peter, and his peter, to stand there as long as possible, daring her to walk out while he's as vulnerable as it gets — flabby, pasty, and stark effin' nude. Segel, who also wrote Forgetting Sarah Marshall, has learned at least this much from Apatow (who produces here): You play not to the audience but to characters in the scene — in this instance, the love of Peter's life for five years, for whom the sight of him naked and whining probably isn't all that unusual.
Segel is still getting his freak on — and his geek, too — playing a songwriter who has spent years working on a musical starring a Dracula puppet who just wants a little looooove. Even if his movie, directed by first-timer Nicholas Stoller, visits familiar territory — Hawaii, specifically, where he goes to forget his lady love but bumps into her seconds after his arrival — Segel is willing to go to dark, weird places that his contemporaries won't. Peter fits neatly into the Apatow catalog of screwed-up, stunted crybaby man-boys, but he's also Bruce Jay Friedman's Lonely Guy — a misfit and a mess.
Eventually, of course, he meets the woman who will put him back together: Rachel Jansen (Mila Kunis), a receptionist at the Hawaii hotel to which Peter retreats once he discovers that screwing his way through Los Angeles' female population won't cure his heartbreak. The film ultimately adheres to the romantic-comedy formula, which demands that we root for Boy to get Girl — any girl, as long as he winds up happy by the end credits. Rachel is as good as any. She's a smart, tough stunner who takes pity on pathetic Peter before realizing he's a good guy done wrong by Sarah. But their scenes together feel like cogs in the romantic-comedy machine that also makes Sarah hook up with a loutish British pop star named Aldous Snow (Russell Brand), for whom leather pants are perfectly suitable beachwear. To be fair, Brand is a rather brilliant comedian and no small asset to the picture. Segel could have written Aldous as cruel or stupid; instead, he's a rather clever, self-aware chap — a character, in other words, rather than a mere caricature.
Several members of Apatow's troupe of regular irregulars also show up: Paul Rudd as a bottle-bleached surfer who spouts stoner aphorisms, Jonah Hill as a waiter with a desperate man-crush on Aldous, Bill Hader as the stepbrother cajoling Peter to get on with what little life he has, Jack McBrayer as the simpering newlywed finding Jesus between his wife's thighs. But without Segel bravely channeling "his own anxieties and obsessions into his clowning," as Pauline Kael wrote about Woody Allen 24 years ago, Forgetting Sarah Marshall would have been easily forgettable and, one might even say, limp.