There are so many films that depict depression with thoughtful beauty that you could spend a week arguing about which captures the sensation of it best. Maybe you’d argue for Lars von Trier’s apocalypse epic Melancholia, or the indie-quirk sadness of Zach Braff’s slow burn Garden State, or the 2016 tragedy Manchester By the Sea. Sometimes, depression is best shown through small metaphors: The slow shaking of pill bottles, or just an expression in the mirror.
But the depiction that’s stayed with me the longest isn’t quite as sad and cinematic as all that. It’s a scene from the 2008 comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall, when our protagonist Peter is sitting at his piano, loathing himself and his own sadness in the wake of a devastating breakup with the titular Sarah Marshall.
Peter is a professional composer, but all he can think of while sitting at the piano is a sad ditty: “Everybody hates you. Everybody wishes you were dead. Peter you suck, Peter you suck, Peter your music is fucking terrible…” he sings, jamming his hands into the keys. “Peter you suck, Peter you suck, Peter you don’t do anything of valuuuue…”
Forgetting Sarah Marshall is by every metric a comedy, and Peter’s own depressive spiral after the breakup is played for laughs. There’s no explicit mention of Peter having a mood disorder either, and the movie has a bittersweet but ultimately happy finale. But we do get clues that this is more than just a man who’s upset after the end of a five-year relationship, too. At one point, Marshall admits with frustration that it bothered her to see him waste days on the couch, wearing the same pair of green sweatpants. She points out that she sought therapy and worked on herself, while he remained mired in his own head. “I couldn’t drown with you anymore,” she concludes.
Losing the people you love because they can’t cope with your moods is a fear — and a reality — for people who struggle with depression, but the film captures the raw, sloppy mediocrity of the disorder in other ways, too. I see it in the blank, unconvincing way that Peter tells his stepbrother that he’s doing good, and how his apartment slowly degrades into a jungle of empty bottles, fast-food bags and other random detritus. It’s equal parts hilarious and tragic to watch Peter, bundled up with a blanket and a pint glass of shitty chianti, break into a quiet sob while watching a contestant be dismissed on Project Runway. I can relate to the half-baked smile he puts on while standing next to a newlywed couple, giggling with glee.
But nothing hits quite like Peter at that piano, caught up in manic despair, telling himself he sucks for not being able to pull himself out of the pit. “It’s so self-loathing, go see a psychiatrist — I hate the psychiatrist — well, go see one anyway — I don’t LIKE the PSYCHIATRIST!” he sings, growing louder with each phrase.
It’s not exactly the sweeping, melancholy depiction of a mood disorder we’ve seen in so many other cinematic masterpieces; it’s even more silly that Peter finds a semblance of inner peace by finishing a long-gestating romantic musical about Count Dracula, portrayed with puppets. But real life is sometimes just as weird and stupid when it comes to the things that can break through our hopelessness, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall is always a potent reminder of that.