The Five-Year Engagement
Predictably sweet comedy that requires commitment to sit through
Fair warning: If you’re in a relationship in trouble, “The Five-Year Engagement” will probably seem like the date movie from hell. One of the softest, least crass offerings from the Judd Apatow production factory, it’s a romantic comedy about Tom (Jason Segel, who co-wrote the script) and Violet (Emily Blunt). They’re adorably in love from frame one, and when, in the opening scene, he proposes to her on a magical New Year’s Eve in San Francisco, you may be forgiven for wondering where the story can possibly go from here.
Not so much south as east, it turns out. Tom’s a sous chef on the rise and Violet’s looking for a doctoral program in psychology, which she eventually finds in far-off Michigan. The relocation is played for passive-aggressive farce, as Tom obligingly puts his career on the back burner and follows his soulmate to the snowy Midwest. The wedding gets postponed. Then it gets postponed again. Then — you get the idea.
It’s a fairly bizarre concept for a snuggle-up flick, less a falling-in-love story than a trying-to-keep-love-alive story. While Violet finds success in her field (Rhys Ifans is her rakish professor, and Mindy Kaling, Kevin Hart, and Randall Park play her fellow PhD candidates), Tom slowly falls into heartland inertia. He gets a job making sandwiches at a deli run by Brian Posehn as a cracker-barrel nutjob, and goes hunting with dweeby house-husband Chris Parnell. He’s boiling mad but doesn’t know where to put his anger, and neither does the movie. “Five-Year Engagement” alternates between realistic scenes of couples bickering and broad character farce, and the two halves mesh uneasily. By the time Segel starts wearing a patently fake mountain-man beard, you may wonder what happened to the cute, reasonably perceptive movie we started out with.
“The Five-Year Engagement” is pleasant and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, and the preview audience I saw it with — mostly women in groups of two or three — ate it up. There’s no reason for it to go on for over two hours, though. Between that opening proposal and the film’s title, you know exactly what’s going to happen, and the result is a comedy-drama almost completely free of dramatic tension. Under co-writer Nicholas Stoller’s smooth, uninspired direction, the various roadblocks come along at predictable intervals: the drunken dalliances with others, the last-minute misunderstandings. If last year’s art-house romance “Like Crazy” had been remade by a computer, it might look like this.
We’re left, then, with the actors and their dialogue, and that’s almost enough. Between last year’s “The Adjustment Bureau” and the upcoming “Your Sister’s Sister,” Blunt has been loosening up her officious screen persona, and she’s pliant and soulful here. Segel can do lumpy nice-guy in his sleep. We believe in these two as a couple; their rhythms are the rhythms of people who are genuinely comfortable with each other. We watch the movie not hoping they’ll get it together but waiting for them to outlast the plot.
I wish there had been more scenes with Chris Pratt as Tom’s sweetly doltish brother and Alison Brie as Violet’s sister, a goofy pill. These two become a couple, too, and their rhythms don’t match up at all — that’s the comedy. Brie especially grabs at the chance to break out of her TV rut (she’s on “Community” and plays Pete Campbell’s much-abused wife, Trudy, on “Mad Men”) and her performance, dab British accent and all, is the film’s freshest surprise. One of the funnier scenes in “The Five-Year Engagement” involves Violet and her sister having a tense family argument while talking in the voices of Elmo and Cookie Monster; once it’s over, you can feel the movie sigh and get back to the business at hand.
Which is curiously retrograde when you stop to think about it. (Trust me, the movie doesn’t want you to.) The message of “The Five-Year Engagement” is that men subordinate themselves to their fiancee’s careers at their peril — that putting your bliss on hold while the woman you love follows her’s is antithetical to the essence of Guyness. Which may be true, and at least this cautionary tale urges its hero to speak what’s in his heart rather than give in with a martyr’s shrug. The filmmakers still could have dug deeper. There are a few “daring” shock-jokes here to remind us we’re at an Apatow movie, but a more genuinely daring movie might have reversed the genders and explored Violet’s emotional agita as she gives up everything for Tom. That wouldn’t be a comedy, though. That would be life.