The premise is simple. Jason Segel is Peter, a composer for Crime Scene: Scene of the Crime, a schlocky cop show starring his girlfriend, Sarah Marshall (played by Kristen Bell). Sarah dumps Peter, because Peter is stuck in a rut, and so begins Peter’s mourning period, punctuated by unhelpful advice from mates and idiosyncratic sex. Eventually, he winds up in Hawaii, at a luxury hotel where receptionists look like Mila Kunis (good) and Sarah is holidaying with her new love interest (bad). A carousel of dependable comic talent spins through the beachy background: Jonah Hill as a dippy member of hotel staff, Paul Rudd as a far-out surf instructor, Kristen Wiig as a supercilious yoga instructor. Hijinks ensue, breakthroughs too, and, well, you can probably guess how it all ends.
Such was the cultural landscape in 2008 – we earnestly used the term “metrosexual” – that a romantic comedy but for guys was a relatively radical proposition. And Forgetting Sarah Marshall worked. Directed by Nicholas Stoller, the film is breezy as a Hawaiian afternoon, as lived-in as a pair of sand-encrusted flip-flops. Audiences agreed: made with a budget of $30 million, it raked in $105 million worldwide. It’s the type of film you have to watch if it’s on, because the next scene is really great, and so is the one after that, and actually, the ending is pretty sweet, too.
There are many things to like about Forgetting Sarah Marshall, chief among them the scrutiny applied to Peter, equal to anything his female counterparts have had to endure. He is presented as schlubby, when really he is a slightly-more-interesting-than-average guy with a normal body (to ensure we know this, Segel appears nude throughout), a cool job (he’s not Hans Zimmer, but writing music for a popular procedural is no prison sentence) and Jason Segel’s face. Both Bell and Kunis share a sharp, intuitive comic timing. For an almost two-hour movie, the pace is sufficiently meditative and swift. The film’s most seductive feature, however, is also its most mystifying: Russell Brand.
The comedian plays Aldous Snow, a British pop star who has stolen Sarah’s heart (long before, we later learn, she actually ends things with Peter). Snow’s bohemian swagger punctures the film’s American sheen: ragged hair and tight black jeans bristle with the island’s laid-back setting. His band’s ludicrous name, Infant Sorrow, is taken from a Blake poem. At a hotel party, he sings his hit Inside You (lyrics include: “Oh these ancient skies, / I’ve had these wandering eyes, / But you took me by surprise, / When you let me inside of you").
He is the perfect rebound for Sarah, and a total nightmare for Peter: a sex-obsessed, annoyingly limber pop star. Brand excels. When the film needs a celebrity-brained Lothario, he is down for sex scenes. When a clown is required, Brand throws on his skimpy trunks and impales himself on coral. When he has to be likeable, Brand humbles himself just enough to provide Peter with some tenderness. (The performance is a fine balance, and relies on his able co-stars: Brand resurrected Snow for the film’s sequel, 2010’s Get Him to the Greek, but without Segel’s warmth, the character curdled.)
Snow works because he is ever so slightly smarter than a stereotype, just a little sharper than your average celebrity idiot. After the rocker twigs, mid-sex, that Sarah is still hung up on Peter, he claims, in what may be his most memorable line, that their romantic break was akin to a “little holiday with Hitler”.
On Brand’s 2006 stand-up tour, Shame, he tells a joke about getting a blowjob. The girl pauses to ask Brand, “Did you like me deepthroating you?”, to which he replies: “I don’t like you using the word deep throating as a continuous verb. It’s awkward.” This is a classic Brand joke: a just-about-intellectual take on an explicit situation. Brand’s willingness to take on topics like masculinity, sobriety (his character in Forgetting Sarah Marshall is also sober), and sex helped to secure spots on television panels, chat show sofas, and in the book charts. His startlingly honest 2008 memoir, My Booky Wook, was warmly received by critics and readers alike. At his laziest, Brand substitutes an English accent for wit. But at its best, Brand’s winding, elaborate storytelling is electric.
In 2008, Brand was not in Hollywood movies. Even Segel, who wrote the script, basing it on real break-ups, was not thinking of the comedian at the time. Instead, he wrote the character with his close friend Charlie Hunnam in mind. Hunnam, a searching, anxious actor is an intriguing, if not immediately convincing, choice for Snow, but he pulled out, and the role went to Brand, who was at the time a successful stand-up comedian as well as a TV presenter, most notably for Big Brother, though he also hosted an MTV show until he was fired for coming to work dressed as Osama bin Laden the day after 9/11.
That Sliding Doors casting worked out for everyone. Brand’s humour translates perfectly for the film; even his instantly recognisable look is unchanged. When Peter first encounters Snow, in the hotel lobby, uncomfortable as hell in a Hawaiian shirt, the rockstar is looking for his left flip-flop. “It’s this one’s fellow,” he says, waving about the right flip-flop. “Sort of the exact opposite, in fact, of that. Not an evil version, but you know, just a shoe like this.” Brand’s comic timing turns that moment into an instantly replayable scene (the 23-second YouTube clip has over 70,000 views). Brand nails these asides.
Produced by Judd Apatow, Forgetting Sarah Marshall shares a vibe, but stands apart from films termed as “bromantic comedies”, an emergent genre at the time. It boasts a more intriguing rom-com concept, recalibrating around its male lead. Kunis takes on the role of a charming, personality-free love interest (usually played by Patrick Dempsey), Bill Hader takes on the role of kooky best friend (Judy Greer’s territory), and Brand is the other (wo)man (a role that would likely have gone to Cameron Diaz). It certainly set Brand up for a starry, potentially transatlantic future. In 2008, he even put an end to the film adaptation of My Booky Wook, explaining to MTV Movies Blog: “I’m not going to make the Booky Wook into a film anymore because then people in America will learn what my past is like.” It did not quite work out like. In 2011, Brand led the remake of Arthur, a critical failure and commercial non-event. Since then, he has starred as Dr Nefario in the Despicable Me franchise, as Creek in Trolls, and as himself on Neighbours. It’s steady work, a filmography that most working actors would envy, but nothing stuck like Forgetting Sarah Marshall.
Headlines have often eclipsed Brand’s work on stage and on screen. Six months after Forgetting Sarah Marshall’s release, Brand and Jonathan Ross prank called Fawlty Towers actor Andrew Sachs and goaded him about his granddaughter, Georgina, on BBC Radio 2, leading to Brand’s resignation and a 12-week suspension for Ross. Two years later, he married Katy Perry, inspired one of the century’s most beloved pop albums, Teenage Dream, and a year after that? They filed for divorce.
His freewheeling persona has been a boon to other platforms. He has an obligatory podcast, Stay Free, where he interviews guests “from the worlds of academia, popular culture, and the arts” in an attempt to “uncover the ulterior truth behind our constructed reality”. Guests have included M.I.A, Wim Hof and Jordan Peterson. In his last tour, Brand seems to have taken on an almost messianic quality, reportedly dedicating a significant (and significantly weird) portion of the evening to hugging his enthralled audience. Tanya Gold, writing for Unherd, observed: “They come, one after the after, for hugs of all kinds – swift, flirtly, souful – and photographs, and a combination of the two: the soulful hug selfie.”
Brand really flourishes on YouTube, publishing videos which have unhinged pop-up ad energy: “Sauna Can Treat WHAT?! Dr Rhonda Reveals SHOCKING Benefits”, “Hillary Clinton’s Most CRINGE Moment EVER!!!”, “Oh SH*T, These Companies Will OWN YOUR HOUSE In 5 Years!!”. These videos, usually at least 15 minutes long, wrack up hundreds of thousands of views. One of his most popular videos, “Covid Cover-Up: New BOMBSHELL Lab Leak Report!!”, in which he suggests there was an “international coverup” about the outbreak of coronavirus, has over 5 million views. Perhaps inevitably, he now livestreams weekly on Rumble, a video platform favoured by far-right content creators. At a launch event for Rumble’s new headquarters this year, Kimberly Guilfoyle, Donald Trump Jr.’s wife, uploaded an Instagram with Brand, with the caption: “Naturally, couldn’t resist a pic with the incomparable #AldousSnow.”
Watching Forgetting Sarah Marshall in 2023 is comforting. It holds up, ideal for a flight, or a hangover, or ironing. It is also a strange portal into the late 2000s, a time for Segels and Rogens, very funny everymen who went onto become something even cooler: fashionable, well-respected actors. Even stranger: there is a world where that could have happened to Brand, too, but much like the enduring Snow, he proved hopelessly restless, impossible to pin down.