Any movie calling itself The Five-Year Engagement is fairly upfront about its tendency toward feet-dragging. But it still seems a major act of dawdling for director Nicholas Stoller to take 123 minutes to get to the end credits of this affable but uneven romantic comedy. Every hillock and pothole on the road to happiness for nice-guy chef Tom (Jason Segel) and his fiancée, nice-girl grad student Violet (Emily Blunt), is painstakingly chronicled and the movie persists until every cast member has either seen Segel’s nude rump (no full frontal for him, the way there was in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, although there’s much discussion of his member) or done his or her part to contribute to the movie’s R-rating for language.
By the 90-minute mark, I was ready for a divorce, but based on the steady squeals of laughter around me at a preview screening, may have been in the minority. Segel and Stoller, who wrote the screenplay together, have certainly done well as a team in the past. They co-wrote The Muppet Movie and Stoller directed Segel in 2008’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall, another Segel screenplay. They imbue Engagement with a Sarah Marshall-style mix of raunchy humor and sweet sincerity, the kind that allows for pokeinggentle fun at sensitive topics like Princess Diana and September 11 without seeming nasty.
Violet is wearing a Princess Diana costume on the night she and Tom first meet in San Francisco. They’re at an alternative super-hero New Year’s Eve party and Tom, dressed as a pinky bunny, wants to know what Diana’s superpower is. “Princess Diana doesn’t require a super power,” Blunt says, crisply. I believe the bunny would have shuffled off to get himself another bong hit, but they are holding hands by the stroke of midnight. (Throughout the movie, the couple revisits these scenes in flashback so many times it starts to seem as like a Rashomon-homage, except that nothing different ever happens.) When they get engaged a year later, Violet plans the wedding while waiting to hear whether she’s going to Berkeley for a post-doc.
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No such luck. Only the University of Michigan wants her and Tom has to give up his fancy sous chef job to relocate to Ann Arbor where Violet is mentored by a charismatic Welsh professor (Rhys Ifans) who obviously finds her fetching. The wedding is delayed until they can get back to a place worth getting married in. Ann Arbor has a good reputation in most circles, but Five-Year depicts it as dismal and provincial enough to cause a normal, stable fellow like Tom to lose his mind and his mojo. Two winters in the place and he’s got three dead deer hanging in the garage and is wearing handknit sweaters as unpleasantly furry as the mutton chops growing on his face (both of which make for good sight gags).
Here at last is Five-Year’s strength. It aptly explores the notion of sacrifice for a relationship and simultaneously portrays an aspect of young adult life that movies usually neglect, namely the necessary adaptation to a place, letting it envelope you, even against your will, while you long to return to a former life light-years cooler. If Tom were still in San Francisco, he’d be executive chef at a wildly successful restaurant called Clam Bar. Instead he’s making sandwiches at a place called Zingerman’s. He’s miserable, but he’s trying to make the best of the situation because he truly loves Violet and she truly loves him. And her career: “Academia is my life ,Tom,” she says during pillow talk. The relationship evolves within the framework of her success and his sacrifice. It’s aiming, in its silly way, to be Scenes from a Almost-Marriage. Neither Tom nor Violet are demonized or do anything idiotic, which is a refreshing change from most romantic comedies.
The chemistry between Segel and Blunt is another matter. They’re very jolly, but more in the cozy manner of brother and sister than actual couple. Their kisses appear more a matter of fierce adhesion than sensual exploration, as if they’ve smashed their mouths together and can’t pry them apart. (And it’s not a matter of Blunt being out of his league in terms of looks; I bought the pairing of Segel and Mila Kunis in Sarah Marshall, and Segel and Cameron Diaz in Bad Teacher.) Even their acting styles don’t feel natural in tandem; Blunt is crisp and coolly cerebral, while Segel is all sloppy, emotive heart. Opposites certainly can and do attract, but these two never convinced me of any real passion between Tom and Violet.
But that’s not the key reason the movie seems interminable. Five-Year has comic bloat. Virtually every character gets their own moment of stand up, but in most cases, the bits aren’t funny enough to warrant the screen time. Even the brilliant Mindy Kaling, who plays one of the sitcommy gang of post-docs Violet hangs out with, only gets off a good line one out of four attempts. Chris Pratt and Alison Brie (of TV’s Community and Mad Men), who play, respectively, Tom’s best friend and Violet’s sister, fare slightly better, though I’d trade Pratt’s oafish Five-Year character for his much funnier oafish Parks and Recreation character any day. Often the effort to give everyone a chance to generate laughs translates into cheap stunts or freakish behavior. Comedy should be generous, and Stoller and Segel are nothing if not generous filmmakers. That’s all well and good on set, but you know when it’s time to get stingy? During editing.