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Forgetting Sarah Marshall *** (R)

By Connie Ogle, Miami Herald

The latest comedy from Judd Apatow and his band of merry men is about an essentially nice but loserish guy who must emerge from his self-imposed adolescence to find happiness. Apatow, who produced the film, has mastered this story, reinventing and perfecting it with unforgettable, ribald humor in The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up. (The boys of Superbad were too young to hit this time-to-grow-up stumbling block, but give them time.)

What’s surprising, though, is how fresh Forgetting Sarah Marshall feels, even when you think you know what’s coming. The movie isn’t quite so polished as Virgin or Knocked Up, but it’s terrifically funny and, for a few brief moments, poignant. Its success lies squarely in the hands of screenwriter and star Jason Segel, who appears on the sitcom How I Met Your Mother, has been an Apatow ensemble member since the heady days of Freaks and Geeks, and apparently has no fear whatsoever.

Segel plays Peter, a gawky musician who composes moody accompaniment to a CSI-type TV show that stars his girlfriend Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell of Veronica Mars). In his spare time, he loafs around in sweatpants, watches bad TV and works on his Dracula puppet musical (a hobby that pays off handsomely in the end).

Segel proves adept at satire from the start, bashing cheesy David Caruso one-liners and mannerisms, and he quickly displays an aptitude for the brutally awkward moment: In a scene so thunderously agonizing it belongs on a Ricky Gervais box set, Sarah dumps Peter while he is naked. The moment also marks a feminist, comic triumph of sorts: male nudity as an object of ridicule.

Peter tries to shake off depression by traveling to a posh resort in Hawaii but discovers that Sarah and her new, utterly cool, rock-star beau (the hilarious Russell Brand) are also vacationing there. Even Rachel, a pretty customer-service rep (Mila Kunis, That ’70s Show), can’t push Sarah from his mind.

How Peter finally moves on matters, but the real meat of Forgetting Sarah Marshall is a series of fine, comic appearances: Paul Rudd, the clown prince of the Apatow supporting role, as a dimwit surf instructor; Bill Heder (Saturday Night Live) as a well-meaning stepbrother who checks on Peter via computer; Jack McBrayer (30 Rock) as a flummoxed newlywed; Davon McDonald as a supportive bartender. The one gag that never quite works involves Jonah Hill (Superbad) as a fawning waiter; repetition only exposes this joke’s weaknesses.

Still, Segal, like Steve Carell and Seth Rogen before him, negotiates the line between idiot and hero, and, as a writer, he takes great chances. In one bold and brilliant scene of meta comedy, Peter mocks Sarah’s almost-straight-to-DVD film, which shares characteristics of Bell’s real-life dog Pulse. Touches as savvy as that put Segel solidly in good company — that of the master himself.

Cast: Jason Segel, Kristen Bell, Mila Kunis, Russell Brand

Director: Nicholas Stoller

Screenwriter: Jason Segel

Producers: Judd Apatow, Shauna Robertson

A Universal Pictures release. Running time: 112 minutes. Sexual content, language, some graphic nudity.