The Mila Conundrum (not a thriller)

I have to disagree with Ross on at least one point regarding Forgetting Sarah Marshall. I assume that, in calling it a “something of a dud,” he means he didn’t think it was funny. I thought it was somewhere between funny and very funny. (The guy sitting behind me, who laughed some shrapnel onto my hand at one point, probably thought it was between very funny and hysterical.) Still, the movie has a glaring problem.

The other big Apatow movies – 40yo Virgin, Knocked Up, Superbad – had as a major plot element some loserish guy romancing a hot or fairly hot girl or woman. But these romances were obscured at least partially by a clutter of character, incident, and thematic trouble. Thanks to the hilarious marriage subplot in Knocked Up, and the advancing threat of parenthood, you didn’t have to dwell that much on the anomalous fact that an extremely shlubby version of Seth Rogen was winning over Katherine Heigl. But everything in FSM funnels attention toward the building romance between Jason Segal’s Peter and Mila Kunis’s Rachel. It’s not that Segal is inherently unattractive, but his character, recently dumped and taking the breakup snivellingly, is just about the definition of unsexy. You strive not to be dumped like this guy is dumped – if you’re a man with any self-respect – precisely because it makes you revolting to women, and properly so. This would be a problem in any case, but mainly a conceptual problem, a lazy contrivance that would bug you in the abstract but that you’d get over in a movie as funny as this one. It becomes an aesthetic problem, however, because of Mila Kunis, whom I’ve always found an attractive and able comic actress but who in this movie is just arrestingly beautiful and sexy. (I dare any straight guy to watch this movie and not dumbly crush out on her.) Her Rachel is both luminous and sort of feral, and, as such, terribly matched with Segal’s Peter. In many of the flirtatious and romantic scenes between these two, I found myself averting my eyes, looking down, in embarrassment, at the little yellow lights in the aisle. I can’t say that I wish either Kunis or Segal weren’t in the movie (though if I had to choose it would be easy). I just wish there was a little more comic clutter to distract from their hard-to-watch romance.

This whole Mila Kunis thing brings up something else. It’s typical for these breakup movies for the guy to upgrade from the desiccated, WASPy blonde who dumped him to an earthy brunette, but the contrast in this movie is so glaring that I actually felt sorry for Kristen Bell, who plays Sarah Marshall. (This is going to sound harsh. I wouldn’t write it if I thought Kristen Bell were a TAS reader.) Her character is a sort of parody of a television actress, but the thing is that she looks like a parody of a television actress. Where Mila Kunis is a sort of Rousseauan ideal of natural beauty, all litheness and fitness and proportion, Bell has the tiny body and oversized head that actors are said to often have, so that even when her whole body is on screen, her head still looks like it’s supposed to have a television around it. A television actress herself, she was obviously cast because of how closely she resembles the thing her character is supposed to be a parody of. So, in Forgetting Sarah Marshall Kristen Bell gets to literally embody her own parody. That is not an identity that – having called attention to it in such a way – you can just climb out of for your next movie. Given the roll that Judd Apatow is currently on, Sarah Marshall must have seemed like a dream part for Bell, but, to be honest, I don’t see how her career will recover from it.