Male nudity has tremendous comedic potential.
There are many constants and recurring themes in the numerous films that fall under the Judd Apatow brand but one of the most obvious is the frequent, effective use of the naked man to generate laughs.
Consider the 2007 Apatow productions "Superbad" and "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story," both prime examples of expert usage of phallic humor. "Superbad" showcases a collection of clever, X-rated illustrations. My personal favorite is a perverse version of the famous photograph of the lone man standing against the tanks at Tiananmen Square. The drawings were so popular they were actually collected and published in a book.
One joke in "Walk Hard" is particularly illustrative of the effectiveness of this subset of the gross-out style. There's a scene in which rocker Dewey Cox (John C. Reilly) talks to his wife on the phone while in a hotel room filled with half naked groupies and band mates. As he's speaking with her a naked man just walks into the frame of the shot for no apparent reason other than to force the audience to become distracted and uncomfortable.
See, a naked guy is funny. Take a look at one sometime. We tend to look a bit bizarre. All a scene needs to jack up the laughter level a couple notches is for the man to be sans clothes.
The newest Apatow movie, "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," knows this principle very well as it wisely chooses to begin its story with the Sarah of the title (Kristen Bell,) an actress on a "CSI"-style show, breaking up with Peter Bretter (Jason Segal, also the film's writer,) who composes the show's music, while he's naked. The break-up destroys Peter - it was a five and a half year relationship after all. For the next several weeks he's an emotional wreck, crying constantly, overeating, watching VHI, and engaging in numerous drunken one night stands.
He seeks consolation in the companionship of his step-brother Brian (Bill Hader, best known as one of the cops in "Superbad" and just as funny here.) Brian suggests that Peter escape the apartment and all the memories of Sarah that it holds. So Peter takes a vacation to Hawaii. Unfortunately, once there he discovers Sarah and her new boyfriend, the wild, womanizing Aldous Snow (Russell Brand,) lead singer of alternative rock band Infant Sorrow. Rather than leave or pick another hotel (there are plenty of islands in Hawaii after all!) Peter chooses to stay and instead continually, awkwardly bump into Sarah and Aldous.
Aside from his ex's presence, the hotel is pretty nice. All of the people that work there take pity on poor Peter, especially the sweet, friendly hostess Rachel (Mila Kunis, more likable than her character on "That ‘70s Show.") Peter befriends some of the other hotel's guests, including a recently-married young Christian couple struggling with the beginnings of their sex life. The husband Darald is hilariously played by Jack McBrayer of the show "30 Rock" who's also known for a memorable appearance as a nerdy computer tech in Mariah Carey's recent "Touch My Body" music video.
"Forgetting Sarah Marshall" is a comedic triumph, easily the funniest movie so far this year (though I have high hopes for next week's "Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay.") It continues and expands upon positive trends in previous Apatow films in combining effective comedy with substance.
What "Sarah Marshall" represents is the virtually perfect combination of the male-dominated, gross-out comedy with the female-centered, romantic comedy. This has certainly been done before. "There's Something About Mary," "Chasing Amy," and Apatow's films come to mind. Never before, though, has the balance been so perfect as with "Forgetting Sarah Marshall." This really is a film that both men and women can come into together with equal enthusiasm and both find satisfaction.
It also isn't a repeat of "Knocked Up" and the other Apatow films. It's not about the development of the male protagonist from an adolescent mindset to an adult one, at least not at all like "Superbad" and "The 40-Year-Old Virgin." (Every story has to show its protagonist maturing in some way.) Very real, relatable experiences are explored here about relationships, sexuality, and the psychology of men and women. There's one scene in particular in which Peter, Rachel, Sarah, and Aldous are having an awkward dinner together. The passive aggressive words exchanged between Peter's new love Rachel and his ex Sarah are the kinds of things real women might say in that situation.
And it's that element of realism - characters behaving as people do in real life - that helps separate "Sarah Marshall" from 90 percent of comedies and "chick flicks" out there. The characters are not caricatures. Of the four principle characters each is ambiguous and complex. No one is perfect and no one is a total jerk. Even the promiscuous Aldous, who does and says some pretty objectionable things, is hard not to like. In a lesser film each of these characters would have been a predictable, one-dimensional bore. Peter would have been the pathetic, man-child victim. Rachel would be the ideal woman of his dreams. Sarah would be cruel and superficial. Aldous would have been an easy-to-hate bully. But they're not. They're human beings with real flaws but redeeming qualities.
Segal has crafted a thoughtful screenplay and as Peter proves his comedic, acting, and leading man talents. Hopefully his work here will help his career explode, just as Seth Rogen's did when he got the chance to star in "Knocked Up."
After all, this film certainly shows that he's got just as much comedic potential as his nakedness.