Written By: Daniel Kinsley
This was never part of the plan.
Way back in June, this writer penned what felt like a very intimate piece on High Fidelity (2000). It was written, partly, in an effort to make sense of a very important relationship coming to an end. Thanks to some great editorial assistance from our inimitable Content Editor François, it was some of our best work (in the humble opinion of this writer). Although that piece mentioned the five break-up films that would make up the backbone of this series, this writer expressed serious doubts at the time in constructing a series that was so personal.*
There are few experiences that we go through which are more isolating than heartbreak, and while writing has proven to be a reliable coping method for many, this felt much more like an experiment, albeit one not without precedent, as this writer has often turned to film in times of both joy and frustration. In many ways, it made sense that picking through films about breaking up might help make sense of what happened. To say that any of these films matched up perfectly to real experiences would be false, but to dismiss the importance of this project in returning this writer to normalcy would be unfair as well. Writing about heartbreak (and feeling better, too) has been a way to plant flags along the way, reminders that the experience was finite. For each piece there was always some question as to how much personal detail to reveal. It is a fine line to walk, but at some point, it became moot; writing this series has been as much about getting dumped and learning to start over as it has about the films themselves. Now, five months later and four essays deep, it finally feels like the time to put things to rest.
If there is a thematic through line to these five films, it is that they endure because they contain something that feels true to the way we experience heartbreak. More than anything, these films are about heartbreak as an agent of change; at its best, these experiences force the characters to confront themselves, or their dreams, or expectations, and force necessary, positive change.
In Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008), Peter Bretter (Jason Segel) is in many ways, another aimless man-child who has wandered so far from his original path that he no longer notices how far astray his life has gone. Peter is a moderately successful composer, and he has been in a loving relationship for five years, but he has grown complacent without realizing it; in many ways, Peter is defined by his relationship to the eponymous Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell). Sarah is the star of (the hilariously titled) police procedural Crime Scene: Scene of The Crime, while Peter is the composer tasked with creating “dark and ominous tones” for the show; as a brief profile on Sarah plays out on Entertainment Tonight, there is a sense (thanks to the piece’s snappy editing) that Sarah and Peter have it all. It becomes apparent how superficial that impression is once Sarah returns home early from a trip, and promptly ends their relationship.
Peter is fresh out of the shower when Sarah shows up, and he reveals himself to her (a rare male full frontal scene) just in time for her to begin her practiced speech about the end of their relationship. The breakup itself is both deeply uncomfortable and painfully funny, thanks to a game performance from Segel. Peter refuses to put clothes on,** and only grows more devastated when Sarah admits that she is seeing someone else. It is simple, but wildly effective, and sets a tone for the remainder of the film, where discomfort and hilarity collide to illustrate the absurdity of post-breakup life.
Once Sarah is gone for good, Peter sulks around in bars with his half-brother Brian (Bill Hader, reliably funny in a small role) and tries to convince himself that alcohol and sleeping with strangers can somehow fill the emptiness in his heart. It will likely be a familiar ritual to anyone who has been dumped, the effort to reclaim some sense of worthiness by feeling (and becoming) desirable again to someone new. There are several hilarious payoffs to these experiences (this writer’s favorite being the woman who brought her own gag) and it becomes clear fairly quickly that Peter is not only failing to get any satisfaction from these meaningless connections, but he is not very good at them, anyhow. There is a sense of obligation to Peter’s pursuits, driven perhaps by a belief that the only way out is through. This is never more clear than a brief flashback after a one night stand, in which Peter remembers less physical, yet far more intimate times with Sarah. After five years of sharing a life with someone else, Peter is totally lost in the fog of a world he no longer remembers how to be a part of.
While the misery endures, Peter decides to take an impromptu trip to Hawaii, believing that a change of scenery could be the key to escaping his angst. There is a version of this story that is more dramatic, opting for a profound globe-trotting journey, but this is not it. Again and again, the film keeps itself grounded with a series of small choices which add up to something far more relatable. Upon arriving, he learns that Sarah and her new boyfriend, rock-star Aldous Snow (Russell Brand) are also staying in the hotel. Taking pity on him, hotel concierge Rachel (Mila Kunis) buys him some time by offering him an expensive suite at no cost, the only provision being that he is not officially a guest of the hotel.
There is a looseness to Peter’s time at the resort hotel, capturing the aimlessness that has now invaded his life. Removed from familiar circumstances, the wandering gives way to different experiences, and even some fun, thanks to the bizarre and entertaining hotel employees and guests. Many of them are made up of familiar faces, including scene-stealing work from Jonah Hill as the over-zealous maître d’ and Paul Rudd as a stoner surfer instructor (“When life gives you lemons, just say fuck the lemons and bail“). It is not until Peter begins spending time with Rachel, however, that his attention begins to pivot away from Sarah. The romance that slowly blossoms between the two is sweet, and plays to the silly chemistry between the actors. While Segel is capable of cringe-worthy awkwardness, he is also goofy and genuine, and Kunis plays the role with the right amount of skepticism and charm, so that by the time he wins her over, it feels earned.
As Peter begins to fall for Rachel, the relationship between Aldous and Sarah begins to show early signs of rust. After her TV show is suddenly canceled, Sarah is facing an uncertain future, and Aldous seems content to go on an 18 month tour with his band, Infant Sorrow, and have Sarah along to lead his groupies, as “Queen of the Sorrow-Suckers.” While Sarah begins to believe that things with Peter may have been better than she remembers, Peter begins to realize the opposite as he observes his ex’s new relationship playing out. While a rewatch of this film means Russell Brand is less potent than he was in 2008, the film smartly manages to keep his antics in enough moderation to remain very funny, and the script gets a lot of mileage out of pairing Peter and Aldous and watching the two bounce off one another, usually to Peter’s frustration.
The film employs some of the most effective flashback sequences this writer can recall seeing, which are used to illustrate the cracks in Peter and Sarah’s relationship. They are used sparingly, but at important moments, revealing the differences between Sarah and Rachel without ever painting Sarah as an out-and-out villain. The reality is sad, but simple: Peter and Sarah just are not meant for one another. When Peter and Sarah eventually have it out over what went wrong, it is not played for laughs, or for fireworks. The conversation is honest, and small, and ordinary. He got complacent, she felt like things got too one-sided. Throw in a few dashes of incompatible personality traits, and things just came apart. It is a great credit to Segel the screenwriter that neither party appears to be the bad guy. People grow, and come to want new things, and they are not always in sync with the desires of their partners, or their former selves. Confronting his responsibility in the way things played out is arguably the most important step for Peter to move past his relationship with Sarah, and ultimately to continue to grow as a man.
What kind of romantic comedy would it be, though, without the third act misunderstanding that threatens to derail the whole thing? After Peter and Rachel share a dinner with Sarah and Aldous (escalating in both laughs and discomfort with each passing moment) the night turns into a game of one-upmanship, ending with Aldous deciding that Sarah is not over Peter. The next morning, Aldous opts to end things with Sarah and leave the resort, alone. Peter, meanwhile, is content to ride the high over the way things have been with Rachel, in spite of the fact that the end of his vacation is looming. Despite beginning to move on, Peter goes to comfort Sarah after Aldous dumps her and finds himself having to confront Sarah’s question of whether she made a terrible mistake. She admits she still loves him, and wants to fix their relationship. While he holds out at first, soon the clothes are coming off, and it appears things may return to status quo. In the heat of the moment, however, Peter learns that his heart is no longer in it (thanks to an assist, or lack thereof, from another organ). While he manages to sidestep the trap of returning to the past, it is enough to throw a wrench into things with Rachel after he explains what happened. Despite his remorse, Rachel insists that his sense of confusion and loss was not an excuse to act like an asshole. While it is certainly a tried-and-true plot device in the genre, it seems less egregious in this case because it comes from a genuine place. Both Rachel and Peter were nursing wounds which the other began to help heal, and Peter’s actions–while ultimately necessary for his own growth–are a betrayal of what the two shared.
After Peter returns to L.A., doubling down on his aching heart, he must begin the real work of starting over. The single funniest scene in the film, for this writer, comes during a riffing piano session where Peter sings a song about how he sucks. It is deeply funny, and feels true to those moments when we are alone in our heads. Most importantly, it feels like catharsis. It takes time, and more sulking, but in a brief and sweet montage, Peter’s new life begins to take shape as he moves in a healthier direction. Much like the protagonists in the other four films, Peter undergoes a minor, but important transformation. He does not need to grow out of his fear of commitment, or a storyline about love that will never come true, but he must rediscover his own agency.
Ultimately, the trip to Hawaii (and the relationship with Rachel) are important, but essentially a catalyst. There was no magic potion to help him forget, no secret shortcut around the pain. Hawaii did not fundamentally change his sense of self, nor was Rachel the solution to his unhappiness. Time and distance teaches him that while a more compatible partner might make him feel good again, ultimately the responsibility to move forward is his alone. In order to be worthy of the love and effort of a woman like Rachel, he must first be willing (and able) to express those efforts for himself, a feat which he lost at some point during his time with Sarah.
The finale takes place during the final scenes of Peter’s realized dream: a Dracula rock-opera, with puppets (and yes, it is just as funny and silly as it sounds). It may not be a long-term solution, but it is a huge symbolic victory toward Peter’s growth. At the end of the show, he spots Rachel in the crowd. She explains that she has returned to L.A., for an indeterminate amount of time, and is looking at returning to the college courses she abandoned. Though there is a bait-and-switch before the happily ever after, Peter, of course, gets the girl in the end. The final reunion shot feels, much like the rest of the film, like it was earned. It is a sweet, small moment, containing the promise of two people who are ready to return to the real world.
For this writer, this film was always going to be the last stop on a long road. If these films were each a stage in the process, Forgetting was meant to take place when enough time had passed to accept what was, and to look forward to what might be. Over time, though, this writer’s impressions of what this piece would look like have changed a lot. In the early days, it seemed as if it would be a long way off, and that the time would only feel right after someone new entered the stage and the process began all over again, a la Tom and Autumn. While the experience of watching this film was ultimately a cathartic one, writing this piece was more difficult than expected. There is a sadness in letting go, even when it is for the best. It is something that the film does not really touch on, but remained part of the experience nonetheless. In 2009, after a tough breakup, this writer turned to this film for comfort, and seeing it again now, the experience could not have been more different. Then, it was a very funny distraction that also acted as a reminder that for every Sarah, there would be another Rachel. Seeing it all again now, it became clear that the film is about the journey (rediscovering your own identity post-breakup) as much as the destination (finding a new partner). Perhaps this is just a case of life bending its will to art, as this writer underwent a similar odyssey (though to Utah instead of Hawaii) and while the real-life experience was filled with far less antics, and no new burgeoning romance, it was no less vital of a reminder that sometimes the only way out is through.
* If you have enjoyed this series, you can thank François for making the case for it and winning this writer over to the idea.
** A scene reportedly inspired by a real experience by Segal, though in real life, he says he did put clothes on halfway through.
Editor’s Note: Links to The Music Or The Misery: Heartbreak and High Fidelity and Losing The Girl: Love and Misery in (500) Days of Summer are provided within the article. For the remaining two pieces in the series, click here for Swingers: You’re So Money, and here for Drama Series: Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind. This is the final entry in a five part limited series.