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Heather Havrilesky

By Heather Havrilesky hhavrilesky@gmail.com

Review: The Five-Year Engagement

If the term “rom-com” is generally uttered with a demeaning tone, that’s because romantic comedies have followed the same downward trajectory as action adventure films and buddy cop flicks over the past few decades. The brilliance of “Annie Hall” and satisfying arc of “When Harry Met Sally” have been imitated and mimicked and reconstructed so many times that the results bear no relation to the original. Thirty-five years after Woody Allen and Diane Keaton chased lobsters around the kitchen, Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston are cashing checks for getting spray-tanned and flat-ironed, then smiling faintly at each other over fake Mai Tais.

“The Five-Year Engagement” marks a notable departure from the rom-com’s precipitous plummet. As tough as it is to raise the bar once it falls so low that it’s not even good for a comical, crotch-smashing limbo scene, Judd Apatow and his merry elves, Nick Stoller and Jason Segel, have transformed what might’ve been an Ashton Kutcher vehicle in less expert hands into a charming film about the rigors of long-term commitment. Instead of following the most typical formula (“Here are two selfish fuckwits who hate each other. Watch them fall madly in love!”), screenwriters Stoller and Segel wisely begin with a normal-ish couple who are already madly in love (awkwardly so, as befits Apatow’s nerdcore style). Tom (Segel) and Violet (Emily Blunt) are earnest and dorky enough that we don’t mind rooting for them, even though we’ll have to watch them fall to pieces, and then pick up the pieces and put them back together again.

Let’s face it, the rom-com Humpty Dumpty routine can get tedious. After an earnest engagement scene and a flashback with Tom trussed up in an enormous bunny suit, we can only brace ourselves for the bickering and the breaking of plates to begin. Thankfully, though, the writers roll out a charismatic psych professor (Rhys Ifans) , a bunch of misfit grad students, a knitting/hunting stay-at-home dad (Chris Parnell), and a disturbed sandwich-making oddball (Brian Posehn) instead. Soon, we’re treated to a volley of crude jokes, site gags with stuffed animals, and a steady succession of farcical twists and turns.

The successful rom-com never overestimates its own charms – or the charms of its superstar leads, for that matter. Rather than resting on their laurels, Segel and Stoller take inspiration from the best of the genre. They turn to the gags and goofiness of “There’s Something About Mary,” the darkness, neediness and commitment-phobia of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” the sheer buffoonery of “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” and the earnest poignancy of “Until Sunrise” to form a story that’s at once heartfelt and packed to the brim with hearty laughs. Scenes may swerve away from the central storyline – Tom goes deer hunting, Violet dreams up an experiment involving stale doughnuts, Tom and Violet babysit and fall prey to a preschooler with a crossbow – but as long as they make the audience laugh out loud (and most do), these diversions are more than welcome. If this everything-but-the-kitchen-sink formula means that modern rom-coms start to resemble manic, farcical sitcoms like “Community” or “Arrested Development,” that probably makes simple sense, considering that the best TV comedies have tended to outshine most of what can be found at the local cineplex for well over a decade now.

“The Five Year Engagement” might threaten to feel less like a story of two people in love and more of a zany ensemble affair, if not for the fact that Blunt and Segel manage to sell us on their star-crossed status from their first scene together. Instead of grappling with a smugly winking Kutcher or an faintly nasty Katherine Heigl, we’re treated to two fine performers who do a nice job of coming across as regular people. It helps that Jason Segel looks exactly like a regular person, of course. But he also gains traction with his willingness to show his ass (literally and figuratively) – rocking some seriously awful facial hair and playing the sort of needy come-to-bed role typically reserved for Teri Garr. Although it’s easy to spot Segel’s face on a movie poster and think, “Not this guy again,” he does have the humility necessary to deliver lines like “I think we both know that I deserve to get super-laid for this.” without making us hate him. (Jack Black could also sell that line. Seth Rogan? No way.) Oddly enough, our sympathy for this less-than-glamorous human reaches an all-time high when he’s forced to service a sexually ravenous 23-year-old. The tortured look on his face as she shouts orders in bed is worth the price of admission alone.

Emily Blunt, on the other hand, while almost so beautiful that it’s distracting, wins us over with an impressive performance. Every single scene she’s in, no matter how ridiculous, Blunt comes across as genuine and vulnerable. How she does this –blinking her gigantic eyes and pouting her cute lips without skidding into Kewpie-doll territory — is anybody’s guess. Admittedly, Blunt’s character may be a little bit underdeveloped. She’s sweet, ambitious, and slightly passive-aggressive, but doesn’t have any discernible flaws and makes only one (very understandable) mistake over the course of the entire film. Hopelessly lovable heroines are par for the course on rom-coms, but Segel and Stoller might’ve looked to “Bridesmaids” for a reminder that audiences are more than willing to embrace flawed, temperamental female characters, if given the opportunity to do so. Still, it’s hard to quibble when Blunt makes us believe in Violet as a real person as well as she does.

The excellent supporting cast of “The Five Year Engagement” steals more than a few scenes. Alison Brie (“Mad Men,” “Community”) may drop her fake British accent occasionally, but she’s otherwise hilarious and delightful as Violet’s best friend Suzie (and she does a mean Elmo voice, albeit one that veers into sounding like a Mandarin Chinese Elmo at times). Likewise, Chris Pratt (“Parks & Recreation”) is utterly convincing as Tom’s dopey guy friend; his may be the best wedding-day serenade in any film, ever. And Mimi Kennedy, who plays Tom’s mom, Carol, almost steals the whole movie when she finally lets loose on her son for screwing up his entire life and allowing his one true love to get away. (I think her speech might end with the words “Fuck you, dummy.”)

But that’s just one of many, many sidesplitting scenes in “The Five Year Engagement.” Don’t be misled by the same old San Francisco skylines and predictable narrative set-ups that have haunted so many weak rom-coms of the past three decades, because this scrappy charmer is a far cry from those other bores. Segel and Stoller don’t just have a knack for great characters and over-the-top madness, they also understand the odd (and somewhat creepy) quirks of couples in love. When Tom tells Violet he needs time alone, then begs her not to leave, it’s a moment of codependent confusion that any lovestruck mortal can relate to. But while it might take five long years for Tom and Violet to sort out their love, Segel and Stoller will have you at “Hello” and then have their way with you until the credits roll.

2 Responses to “Review: The Five-Year Engagement”

  1. The Pope says:

    Ah, now that was a pleasure to read. More please from Miss Havrilesky!

  2. Theschu says:

    Except Alison Brie plays Violet’s sister. Not her best friend. And the movie you’re thinking of is “Before Sunrise” not “Until Sunrise”. Other than that good review.

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