starring: Jason Segel, Emily Blunt, Chris Pratt, Alison Brie, Jacki Weaver, Chris Parnell, Rhys Ifans, Brian Posehn, Mindy Kaling, Mimi Kennedy, David Paymer, Dakota Johnson
written by: Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller
directed by: Nicholas Stoller
MPAA: Rated R for sexual content, and language throughout
The Five-Year Engagement isn’t so much a “romantic comedy” as it is a wrenching relationship drama that happens to be book-ended by dick jokes and interspersed with pratfalls. It is a comedy in the same sense that the second season of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills was a comedy: it gets awfully dark in the middle, but as long as it ends with a wedding rather than a funeral, it’s still technically a comedy.
As the film begins, Tom (Jason Segel), a successful sous chef at a trendy San Francisco restaurant called Birch (it’s fictional, I already tried making a reservation), is proposing to Violet (Emily Blunt) on the one-year anniversary of the night they met. She accepts, and they begin planning their wedding. But then, as life goes, things start getting in the way. First, Tom’s best friend Alex (Chris Pratt) meets Violet’s fluttery sister Suzie (Alison Brie) at their engagement party, which leads in rapid succession to a hookup, an unplanned pregnancy, and a rushed wedding for which they still somehow manage to procure the swan lake courtyard at the Palace of Fine Arts.
And then, the beginning of the end: Violet, who was rejected from the post-doc psychology program at Berkeley, is accepted and offered a faculty position by the University of Michigan. Tom, striving to be a good fiance, agrees to quit his auspicious sous chef job, leave San Francisco, and relocate to the frozen tundra of Ann Arbor with Violet. He tells her (and himself) that he is happy to support her, but when he realizes how limited his own potential for personal growth and advancement will be in their new home (he is forced to take a job at a delicatessen), an embittered sense of disappointment and resentment begins to possess him. He starts acting out and attempting to hold on to his sense of manhood in increasingly uncomfortable ways, while Violet begins seeking refuge with a professor (Rhys Ifans) who may not have the purest of intentions.
This is the third film from director Nicholas Stoller, all of which have been co-written with Segel. It is neither as inspired as the first, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, nor as madcap as the second, Get Him to the Greek; it certainly has the usual trappings of producer Judd Apatow, telling a refreshingly personal and mature story while punching it up with quippy dialogue and an endless supply of comic-relief supporting characters. But this film doesn’t flow quite as effortlessly as the Apatow gang’s finer moments. Much of the comedy feels tacked on, with expert comedians like Mindy Kaling, Chris Parnell, and Brian Posehn trotted out to play one-note sidekicks, and a plethora of slapstick physical humor that feels very out of sync with the film’s dramatic leanings. One almost suspects that Stoller and Segel wanted to have their Interiors moment; if this was the case, they should have stuck to their convictions instead of going half-cocked.
The cast is game. Segel does his Segel thing, all comic timing and disarming vulnerability, not hesitating to push his performance into unlikable territory when Tom enters his depression. I was concerned Blunt might seem dull in this kind of company, but her Violet is bursting with life and personality; this is a very fine dramatic-comedic turn. The NBC Thursday night comedy team of Chris Pratt and Alison Brie do excellent scene-stealing work, although Brie is forced to do a British accent to play Blunt’s sister; the result occasionally veers into Hathaway-esque levels of actorly affectedness, but the invaluable Brie still nails it. Even Jacki Weaver, Oscar nominee for her terrifying work in Animal Kingdom, pops up to stare intensely from beneath a rotating lineup of sun hats as Blunt and Brie’s mother.
The Five-Year Engagement does have some very funny bits; the entire first act is one laugh after another. But once it follows its characters to Michigan, it becomes another film entirely. It could be argued that it is being true to the experience of a relationship breaking down, moving from a euphoric peak into a long, painful valley. But it is not especially pleasant to sit through, nor it is brief (124 minutes). The film perhaps works best as a cautionary tale about the dangers of leaving San Francisco in favor of a destination with cheaper housing and a less competitive job market. Did I mention that it was filmed here? Oh yeah! All over the city! And I had no idea! So many places that I see every day! I think they may have even filmed in my bathroom without me noticing. Argh. Anyway, it may be an uneven blend of punchlines and pathos, but if The Five-Year Engagement can convince even one person in the seemingly nonstop flow of those leaving San Francisco in hordes to consider sticking around, then it’s fine by me.
The Five-Year Engagement opens nationwide today.