THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT (Three Stars)
U.S.: Nicholas Stoller, 2012
The Five-Year Engagement, latest from the Judd Apatow bunch, is a romantic comedy that would probably be annoyed if you called it a rom-com. Directed and co-written by Nicholas Stoller (who made the very entertaining buddy road comedy Get Him to the Greek), it’s a smart film about smart people who get into a dumb situation: a seemingly endlessly protracted engagement that keeps getting extended because, even though they love each other honestly, truly, this engaged couple — psychology grad student Violet Barnes (Emily Blunt) and trendy sous chef Tom Solomon (Jason Segel, who’s also the co-writer ) — can’t solve their geography problem or make their opposing career tracks jell.
Tom works in Birch, one of San Francisco‘s hippest modernist restaurants. Violet wants to go to grad school at Berkeley, but she’s rejected — before getting a positive offer from the University of Michigan. So Tom — such a nice, unthreatening chap that he’s wearing a pink bunny suit when they first meet — plays super-nice guy and agrees to put off their wedding and accompany her to Ann Arbor for a couple of years (they think).
What a prince! (What a bunny!) But…once they get to Ann Arbor, Tom can’t find a decent chef job, and he winds up hand-crafting sandwiches in Zingerman’s deli, for an eccentric, foot-in-mouth deli guy named Tarquin (Brian Posehn). And Violet finds herself the romantic target of her sly, persistent faculty advisor, academic superstar Prof. Winton Childs (Rhys Ifans).
Meanwhile, back in San Francisco, Tom’s somewhat dopey-seeming best pal Alex Eihauer (played with a grin worthy of the Stiffmeister by Chris Pratt), gets the main chef job at Birch for which Tom was slated, marries Violet’s somewhat kooky sister Suzie (Alison Brie) and settles down to the great career and family life that is now nightmarishly eluding his trapped-in-Michigan best buddy. Nice guy Tom, who just wanted to do the right thing for his ladylove Violet, and maybe rack up some good conduct points for the marriage ahead, seems to have done only the wrong things for himself.
Berkeley, Berkeley, shame on you. That perfect wedding, which seemed so close, so inevitable, now seems increasingly elusive, unreachable, and the The Very Long Engagement (too bad Jean-Pierre Jeunet got that title first) seems to be stretching into infinity. Tom’s and Violet’s grandparents, who want desperately to see their grandchildren tie the knot, start proving distressingly mortal. Tom settles down to a ridiculous life with his bizarre new Midwestern companions Tarquin and another faculty husband, the very peculiar Bill (Chris Parnell).
Violet, by contrast, becomes a success and a Michigan mini-star. She gets into a somewhat friendly fellowship competition with three comical, and multi-cultural, psych grads — Mindy Kaling as tart Kaneetha, Randall Park as brainy Ming and Kevin Hart as uninhibited Doug, who thinks the answer to any psychological problem is probably masturbation — while super-prof Winton keeps after Violet, slyly, persistently. Will the marriage happen? Will the romance survive? We have five years (or two hours) to find out.
Most of the things that go wrong with most Hollywood romantic comedies, are done right here. The Five-Year Engagement isn’t a glamorous showcase for a bunch of glam-kids trading double-entendres, but an honest (but also funny) investigation into modern relationships and their quirks and pitfalls. The cast is a first-class, heavy-duty comic ensemble, and the genuinely amusing script has lots of good moments for lots of funny people — especially the stars, Segel and Blunt. The writing — a collaboration between Segel and Stoller (who worked together before in Forgetting Sarah Marshall) is hip and perceptive and sometimes hilarious, and it nicely mixes slapstick, witty dialogue and realistic dramady.
The Five-Year Engagement seems to be taking place, at least partly, in a real world — albeit a frustrating and comically exaggerated one — with problems that really matter. The movie, like most Judd Apatow comedies, is knowing about sex, big-hearted. and crude when it feels like it. But, in the Apatow tradition (and I suppose we should also call it the Segel-Stoller tradition), the show is knowing about human relationships and what can gum them up. It’s both sharply comic and warmly humane.
The movie, opening weekend box-office disappointment or not, touches us because it’s about something real: the dilemma of modern couples trying to juggle careers and marriages (or engagements). We can feel sympathy for Tom and Violet because they’re such an attractive movie couple — though not too attractive. Both of them are also expert comedians; if there’s a laugh somewhere, they’ll get it. Emily Blunt is a prize leading lady, both ravishing and intellectually spry. And Segel is a very, very funny guy who also manages to be almost insanely likable. Most of the supporting cast, especially Ifans as the crafty advisor-on-the-make, and Pratt and Brie as the couple who don’t have a long engagement, are funny as well.
I liked Engagement — but I didn’t love it. And some things in the script, and pretty important things, just hit me with a clang. I spent many years in Madison, Wisconsin — home of the University of Wisconsin and a college town very like Ann Arbor — and I couldn’t believe for a minute (make that a second), that a guy with chef credentials and a personality like Tom’s could move into a city like that one and get such an immediate cold shoulder from all the big restaurants.
It’s not impossible of course. But Segel and Stoller had to come up with a better reason for his freeze-out — say, some humorously stupid bosses or some kind of tryout that Tom flunks for some comical reason or other, or (I like this better), outright secret sabotage from Professor Childs, who might have a friendship with the local hip restarauteur, and thus be able to undermine Tom behind his back. That last may seem like melodrama, but it makes more sense to me (and feels more real) than the montage of turndowns in the movie, for a chef that would have been welcomed at a place like Ann Arbor with open arms and warm ovens. And that story twist would have made you dislike Childs more, which would have helped both the dramatics and the comedy.
There’s one gag that should have been scrapped: the scene where Tom lets Alex and and Suzie’s little daughter wander off, and she finds a crossbow and shoots Violet in the leg with it. It’s not funny, and I don’t see any way you could make it funny, or even make it unannoying, except in some other kind of movie. (The Three Stooges, maybe.) I also may have missed the reason why Violet and Tom don’t do the obvious thing and get married before they go to Ann Arbor.
Of course, you don’t have a movie if they do. And, of course, a college marriage could have crumbled too. This movie absolutely requires a very long engagement. But scriptwriting — especially writing for a try at a classic (or neo-classic) romantic comedy like this — is a matter of solving problems and answering sticky questions. Segel and Stoller show so much comic invention, invent so many characters and dream up so many neat comic moments, that it’s frustrating to see some of the questions unanswered.
Unanswered questions are what we expect in rom-coms, along with all the phony characters and bad lines and the obsession with glamour above personality, and money above sense. From true romantic comedies about people honestly in love, like The Awful Truth or The Shop Around the Corner or Adam’s Rib or The Apartment or When Harry Met Sally or Annie Hall, we expect a mix of gorgeous, hilarious people and sincerity and humanity and shrewd craftsmanship. And laughs. In the best of The Five-Year Engagement (a lousy title, by the way), we get them — honestly, humanly. Just don’t call it a rom-com…