By STEVE PERSALL
Forgetting Sarah Marshall is a comedy that never forgets "screwball" is a compound word. It reminds you with endless variations on the first half and several glimpses of the second, courtesy of writer-actor-exhibitionist Jason Segel.
He's one to watch in the future, when you aren't covering your embarrassed eyes.
Yes, this is another raunchfest from Judd Apatow's miscreant stable, which unleashed an overdue virgin, super bad teens and Knocked Up. Forgetting Sarah Marshall is almost the best of the bunch; The 40-Year-Old Virgin is still Apatow's most complete production, especially since he began using his clout to tout his buddies' projects.
Unlike Seth Rogen, Segel has more going for him than pot jokes and leering at women. Segel's screenplay — his first — displays uncommon respect for the DNA of romantic comedy, making its conventions modernly crude, with old-fashioned sweetness.
Who can't like Peter Bretter (Segel), for whom life is an oversized bowl of Froot Loops? He's dating TV star Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell), while composing her crime-lab show's musical score (more accurately, sinister one-note tones). Sarah returns from a trip with news that's she's dumping Peter, who is too shocked to put on clothes.
Depression envelops Peter, ruining his work and straining relations with his stepbrother (Bill Hader). He must escape, and what better place than where Sarah always wanted to go: a lush Hawaiian resort. Thing is, she's there with her new lover, a British rock star named Aldous Snow (hilarious Russell Brand), possibly Spinal Tap's groupie love child.
It is a classic triangle: hopeless romantic, object of affection and undeserving rival. Segel completes the screwball package with wacky sidekicks (30 Rock's Jack McBrayer, Apatow regulars Hader, Jonah Hill and Paul Rudd) and a procession of crises that can't logically be overcome. Yet he makes us hope they will, which a screwball wanna-be like Leatherheads doesn't do.
Then Segel ups the ante by providing a superior rival for Peter's heart. That '70s Show co-star Mila Kunis can make a statue swoon as Rachel Jansen, the resort desk clerk who watches Peter's life unraveling and lends support, but she doesn't make it easy for Peter.
As an actor, Segel doesn't command attention, which is perfect. I imagined Ben Stiller in the role (bad flashbacks to The Heartbreak Kid), knowing that this sad sack tack is smarter. Everything in Forgetting Sarah Marshall is smarter than post-Farrelly comedies that recall grossness and forget the heart. This movie even makes Hawaii seem like a member of the cast. It's that good.
Steve Persall can be reached at email@example.com and (727) 893-8365. Read his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.