For a few minutes here and there in its unjustifiable and occasionally excruciating two-hour run time, Jason Segel and Emily Blunt are somewhat charming as a couple that can't seem to tie the knot no matter how hard they try in the Judd Apatow-produced "The Five Year Engagement," the latest from "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" director Nicholas Stoller. At the film's lavish premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival Wednesday night, Stoller confessed to the problematic length in his introduction, where he referred to the movie as a six-hour opus. Indeed, somewhere in the post-production process, somebody needed to hit the brakes a little harder. You really feel those five years.
But that's exactly why "The Five Year Engagement" was an appropriate tone-setter for the Tribeca Film Festival at the start of its 10th anniversary. Despite the deep pockets of founding sponsor American Express, Tribeca has never had it easy. Constantly forced to define itself as a major for-profit event jammed on the festival calendar between SXSW and Cannes, it invites invective too easily each time out.
I have been among those critics involved in the Tribeca thrashing process over the years, although I swear it comes from a sincere place: We want this massive festival to be good, just as Tom and Violet, the perpetually engaged stars of "The Five Year Engagement," continue to push back their wedding in hopes of turning it into an impossible ideal.
Like Tribeca, the couple continually updates their plans. Initially, they hope to get married in San Francisco, where Tom has a promising career as a chef; they they shift to Michigan when Violet gets into grad school. Tom grows miserable, the relationship hits a few walls, the wedding nearly happens and then it starts to look more and more like a fantasy.
Tribeca has always hovered in a similar state of ambiguity. Its initial purpose was supposedly to bring business back to Lower Manhattan after 9/11. Now it's a big New York festival with a lot of movies and no discernible identity. As we get further from the festival's birth, it becomes increasingly clear that it still lacks the momentum needed to develop a strong and memorable niche.
At the same time, each year the festival has some movies worth checking out. I enjoyed the creepy hipster apocalyptic drama "First Winter," premiering this week, and eagerly await "Down East," the latest documentary from the people behind last year's "Girl Model," about a lobstering community. "Francophrenia," James Franco's tale of his experience acting on "General Hospital," sounds like a fascinating attempt at celebrity deconstruction. Israeli filmmaker giant Eytan Fox's "Yossi," a sequel to the gay Israeli soldier drama "Yossi and Jagger," holds similar promise.
The documentary "Side by Side," which features Keanu Reeves approaching filmmakers about the shift from film to digital cinema, has been gathering acclaim since its Berlin premiere; ditto for Canadian director Kim Nguyen's African drama "War Witch." The documentary "Planet of Snail," about a blind and deaf man's life with his wife, won the International Documentary Film Festival of Amsterdam last year. I have also heard promising buzz about "Burn," "The Girl" and "Death of a Superhero," among others.
All of which is to say that there are good movies at Tribeca this year, even if they're not always easy to find. If festival audiences pay attention to the recommendations (on this site and elsewhere), they may catch some tremendous achievements. And new artistic director Frederic Boyer — a respectable cinephile who previously ran Directors' Fortnight at Cannes — might be able to bring some clarity to the proceedings if Tribeca renews his contract.
However, despite its massive sponsorship, Tribeca will not, in the immediate future, become one of the major international festivals on the circuit. Then again, it doesn't need to try that hard. In "The Five Year Engagement," Violet and Tom keep reaching for the perfect ceremony and drive each other nuts in the process. Tribeca has ruffled plenty of feathers in its own quest for perfection, but it still has the opportunity to settle down to address its strengths and weaknesses.
Many have suggested that Tribeca trim the program to get rid of the excess world premieres, since a lot of the available stuff simply isn't worth it; keep the focus on the good stuff and make peace with the limitations. That would be a terrific destination after all this time. Let's just hope it doesn't take another 10 years to get there.