Funny, touching and occasionally dramatic, Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller’s charming “The Five Year Engagement” falls just short of the modern-day comedy classic category, and yet is deeply entertaining, genuinely amusing and satisfying in the way most shaggy-dog, two-hour-plus comedies are not. Bolstered by a hilarious supporting cast and two genuinely likable leads, the Judd Apatow-produced comedy may feel a little unkempt at times, but the picture has sweet and touching notes to go with the diverting silliness.
Starring Segel as Tom and Emily Blunt as his girlfriend Violet, the romantic comedy (or just comedy, depending on the moment) begins where most rom-coms end as Tom and Violet get engaged. This, it turns out, a few humorous problems aside, is the easy part. The difficult part is actually making a wedding happen, and the picture is one successive stumble after another on the long, long walk down the aisle. An aisle that sometimes seems so far on the horizon it’s become invisible.
Refreshingly set in two cities that don’t feel played out on screen (San Francisco and the Michigan college town of Ann Arbor, respectively), Tom and Violet’s life is fully on track in the Bay Area. Tom is a very successful sous-chef in a swanky downtown restaurant and Violet is a psychology major who’s about to get some good news. Only good fortune for her means a serious fork in the road for the couple. Follow her dream of potential tenure in snowy, cold Ann Arbor or stay by her man’s side in SF. Fortunately for her, she doesn’t have to decide as the gallant and understanding Tom does the noble thing and chooses to give up his job and move up north to support his girl, assuming he can cook anywhere and thus continue his career in Michigan. Left behind are Tom’s best friend, the obnoxious oaf Alex (a scene-stealing Chris Pratt) who has managed to inexplicably impregnate and marry Suzie (Alison Brie), Violet’s cute and successful sister who should be miles out of this guy’s league. Alex and Suzie’s impossibly wonderful wedding sets up the first of many unrealistic expectations for Tom and Violet’s nuptial plans (leading to a rather hilarious sequence and the musical tangent in the film that nods to Pedro Almodovar’s “Talk To Her”).
Michigan is where the couple’s trouble starts to brew. While Violet’s post-graduate work starts to take off, Tom’s career stops dead in its tracks. Five star restaurants are either non-existent and or every position is booked solid. Instead, the would-be chef has to slum it in a sandwich shop, the patrons of which are generally drunken college kids and bearded woolly men who drop by after a football game. And the shifting dichotomy only gets worse. Violet adores her professor (Rhys Ifans) and the colorful and kooky co-students (played by Mindy Kaling, Randall Park and Kevin Hart) and Tom is forced to hang out with either the emasculated Bill (a rather hysterical Chris Parnell), a stay-at-home father who spends far too much time knitting sweaters, or Tarquin (Brian Posehn), the alcoholic pickling-aficionado co-worker with the tendency to blurt out inappropriate comments always at inopportune times. So as one half of the couple blossoms, and the other idles to the point of complete stasis, and resentment begins to settle in like that unfortunate moment in an relationship when the bloom has fallen off the rose and all that’s left are dried-up petals of reality.
And in many respects, this second-act conflict is where the film starts to go awry, though at least with its humor intact. If there is one thing that prevents “The Five-Year Engagement” from entering the canon of Apatow-ian modern comedy classics (a relative term of course) — considering it has a near picture-perfect beginning and final act — it is the distended and wandering middle that sags with trivial conflict. Well-drawn characters based in an honest emotional world start behaving like cartoons (see the subplot when Segel’s bored and unfulfilled Tom devolves into a type of hirsute mountain man with too much time on his hands). And at an exorbitant 2+ hours, this section of antithetical fat could have been greatly trimmed. In fact, this detour, in some ways, ideologically betrays the tone set up before and after (when the film regains its senses), but it’s a testament to the comedy within, the genuinely likable characters and tone that the film doesn’t really skip much of a beat when the movie gets back on the rails. While this section might be a dealbreaker for some, the engaging story of Tom and Violet weathers this clunky, difficult period.
However, as much farcical disbelief takes place in Ann Arbor — much of it seemingly borne out of the “try anything” improvisatory school of comedy that seems to dominate these days with mixed results — Stoller and Segel know how to land well and steer this rambling and semi-undisciplined comedy into a winning, endearing final act that skids just outside the lines of touchstones like “When Harry Met Sally.”
Additional points are rewarded for well-thought-out narrative gags. Segel’s lumberjack routine does seem out of place initially, but it is engendered out of his character’s genuine frustration, depression and apathy. People do funny things when saddled with dead-end tasks, and much of this circumbendibus derives from the fact that the former breadwinning man is withering away. Similarly, what the film says about best laid plans is rather clever. While the carefully thought-out and planned courtship of Tom and Violet falls into decay, it’s Alex and Suzie’s comically impromptu and accidental union that flourishes.
Yet, unlike say, Judd Apatow’s similarly bloated and equally messy, “Funny People,” Stoller and Segel’s ‘Engagment’ doesn’t hew very closely to their mentor’s rather serious brand of unpleasant emotion and uncomfortable moments comedy. Instead, the duo only flirt with true depthful hurt, sadness and pain, yet never appear overly superficial, a neat trick they likely could draw on a diagram as students of well-constructed comedy.
While not the most serious romantic comedy of all time “The Five-Year Engagement” and its underpinnings ring extremely true and belie its sometimes goofy and charming veneer. Underneath all the jokes about cooking (references to “Ratatouille“), misshapen knitted sweaters and masculinity (or lack thereof) lies a genuinely affecting picture about the all-too-real complications and expectations of trying to tie the knot while negotiating careers, complex emotional baggage and family obligations. And for that “The Five-Year Engagement” should score a winning appreciation from audiences that want a hearty laugh, a tearful happy smile and some substantive meat on the end of their charming rom com. [B+]