Dir. Nicholas Stoller
(R) ★ ★ ★ ½

It’s always a pleasant surprise to see a romantic comedy that’s about the characters in it. Most are about formula, and the characters are moved about the formula like props, with little regard for their personalities or intelligence. Forgetting Sarah Marshall has four main characters: Peter (Jason Segel, also the co-writer) is a composer for a TV crime show and the boyfriend of its star, Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell), who abruptly leaves him for vain rock star Aldous Snow (Russell Brand). To nurse his wounds, Peter takes a trip to Hawaii, where he meets lovely hotel receptionist Rachel (radiant Mila Kunis).

The story is founded on an improbable scenario — Peter and Sarah find themselves vacationing at the same resort — but the characters do not behave as creatures of formula. Their relationships depend on who they are and who they want to be. They speak intelligently, and their conversations are as important to the screenplay as the broad gags. They do not break up and reconcile on cue. I found myself having great affection for all of them, even Aldous, who is written as a narcissistic womanizer, but comedian Russell Brand is so charming in the role that we can’t help but like him. He’s not a villain; he knows what works for him and doesn’t apologize for it.

The film comes out of the Judd Apatow factory, with which I’ve had a strained relationship. Apatow is an excellent writer and director, but the films he has produced, made by various friends and colleagues, have failed to measure up. Superbad, Step Brothers, and Drillbit Taylor were dreary affairs, relentlessly mean-spirited and with a sledgehammer’s understanding of comedy. But this one is up there with The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Its humor is joyously lewd (note Jack McBrayer as a newlywed desperately trying to please his wife during their honeymoon), but its tone is gentler, and it treats its characters with compassion. There is a scene where Sarah tells Peter why their relationship didn’t work, explaining, “It got really hard to keep taking care of you when you stopped taking care of yourself.” Kristen Bell’s performance and Segel’s writing of the scene show surprising, gratifying emotional honesty.

Much of the broader humor is reserved for the talented supporting cast: Paul Rudd as a slow-witted, slacker surf instructor; Jonah Hill as a hotel employee who has an unhealthy obsession with Aldous; and Bill Hader as Peter’s stepbrother. Hader provides one of the film’s funniest moments when he’s not even on-screen; we only hear his voice over a cell phone.

This is the first film directed by Nicholas Stoller, which suggests either beginner’s luck or a comic filmmaker with a bright future. According to the DVD feature commentary, he only learned how to do coverage during the making of this film, but he already has Apatow’s gift for balancing ribaldry with sensitivity. He was previously a writer for Apatow’s TV series Undeclared and has learned well. He should go back to the factory to teach the others.