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There’s a long tradition of beauty-and-the-dweeb comedies that precedes Apatow’s reign, but the stakes here have been ratcheted way up. Take the confrontation that launches Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Peter (Jason Segal), a big, lumbering, depressive composer, lives with Kristen Bell’s Sarah, a lithe blonde with the lead in a cookie-cutter forensic-detective series. She arrives to tell Peter she’s leaving him—only he’s waiting to have sex, and he’s naked. That’s naked naked: We see his penis, not a common sight in mainstream movies. The pleading dialogue that follows is routine, but the scene is pitched at a whole new level of humiliation.

You might feel embarrassed for Segal—except he wrote the movie and built his emasculation into every frame. Peter ends up leaving L.A. for a Hawaiian resort where, wouldn’t you know, there’s Sarah and her new boyfriend, a famous English rocker named Aldous Snow (Russell Brand). It’s not exactly Private Lives repartee, and the scenes that follow are directed by first-timer Nicholas Stoller with no fizz. But the good bits accumulate. Apatow regular Paul Rudd lifts the film to a higher plane as a whacked-out surfing instructor trying to teach Peter the Zen way of getting off a board: minimal dialogue, absurd variations—Zen hilarity. And then there’s Brand, a Brit whose babbling BBC radio show I’ve yet to acquire a taste for, but who is astounding here: manic yet somehow laid-back, serenely at ease with his own magnificence.

Bell is very likable, but it must have been tough finding anything to play: Other characters describe Sarah as a kind of Über-bitch, but as TV starlets go, she’s rather grounded—even a little bland. A bigger problem is she’s overshadowed by Mila Kunis as a resort employee who functions as the girl-next-door brunette alternative. I know I speak with what feminist film writers call “the Male Gaze” and everyone else calls “middle-aged slobber,” but this is a sex comedy, and appearances count, and the almond-eyed, caramel-skinned Kunis is like some genetic redesign of gorgeousness. It’s hard to relate to Peter’s grief when she’s the fallback.

There are funny scenes in the second half, in which Peter labors over a Dracula rock opera that’s actually an eloquent expression of his alienation from women. What makes Apatow-produced sex comedies more vivid than most of their ilk is that they actually feature sex—awkward, relatively realistic sex—and that the men hit authentic notes of psychosexual weirdness. But even with bits that are crazily inspired, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is depressing. The Apatow Factory is too comfy with its workers’ arrested development to move the boundary posts. If they could find scripts by female writers that dramatize the other side of the Great Sexual Divide, it might be a place of joy—and embarrassed recognition—for everyone.

The galumphing serial-killer picture 88 Minutes is dumb enough to be straight out of the parodies in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Al Pacino is a celebrity forensic psychiatrist who’s also catnip to the ladies, and the title is how long he has to dash around in a black suit and under a poufy helmet of hair to solve his own murder before it happens. (In case he forgets, his killer keeps calling to say, “Tick tock.”) When I wasn’t looking at my own watch, I couldn’t stop thinking about that suit: With all the running around it probably didn’t smell too good. The disgusting, fetishistic murders are clearly the work of someone close to him (Alicia Witt, Leelee Sobieski, Amy Brenneman, Deborah Kara Unger, Benjamin McKenzie, or William Forsythe), so every scene is broken into portentous close-ups of people with Dark Secrets. Forget Pacino; it’s all those red herrings that reek.

Standard Operating Procedure
Directed by Errol Morris.
Sony Pictures Classics. R.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall
Directed by Nicholas Stoller.
Universal. R.

88 Minutes
Directed by Jon Avnet.
Sony Pictures. R.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.


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