The Five-Year EngagementMovies
(MA15+, 124 minutes). On general release. ★★★
At the beginning of The Five-Year Engagement, Tom (Jason Segel) makes a complete hash of whisking away his girlfriend, Violet (Emily Blunt), so he can run through a carefully scheduled evening culminating in a marriage proposal. But when Violet realises what is about to transpire, she insists that he nonetheless continue, so she can knowingly enjoy the ritual. Nicholas Stoller's film has much the same relationship with the romantic comedy genre: it already knows every twist and rule, but it still wants to go through with all of them.
The resulting picture, directed by Stoller (Get Him to the Greek) is decidedly more ambitious than the average romantic comedy, which has become a virtually codified form. It's longer in running time, structurally looser and takes in distinct emotional highs and lows. In telling the story of two people who take so long to get married that they start to forget why they even wanted to in the first place, The Five-Year Engagement gets to the point where it finds more pleasure in the perverse and the pathetic.
Stoller and Segel's earlier collaboration, Forget-ting Sarah Marshall, compressed the narrative into a week or two at a Hawaiian holiday resort, but this film adheres to the sprawling title. Once they're engaged, Tom and Violet — a chef and a psychology graduate, respectively — can't easily satisfy the demands of their far-flung families (Violet, like Blunt, is English). When she's offered a promising job at a Michigan university, Tom quits his position in a San Francisco restaurant to accompany her east, leading them to postpone their wedding even as grandparents pass away and his best friend, Alex (Chris Pratt), and her sister, Suzie (Alison Brie), quickly marry and start a family.
Several times the movie sets up scenes familiar to romantic comedies, but then places other members of the cast in a position to facetiously comment on what is happening. It's as if Stoller and Segel's script is pre-empting the home-viewing experience, where corny moments attract wisecracks from whoever's on the couch. There's a decided cleverness in doing so, but it also means that once the illusion is exposed, it's awfully hard to suspend disbelief when the story grows more serious.
But it's definitely enjoyable along the way, especially since the extensive cast is staffed with first-rate comics, including Mindy Kaling (The Office) and Brian Posehn (The Sarah Silverman Program) as new friends in Chicago. You could easily make the case that Pratt (Parks and Recreation) and Brie (Community) deserve their own movie — they're a hilariously mismatched pair and Pratt has a fully formed comic persona as an idiot who is deeply confident about his latest wrong decision.
Stoller and Segel are proteges of Judd Apatow, and the Knocked-Up director is a producer on The Five-Year Engagement. The actors adopt a raucous, ill-mannered tone, the dialogue is peppered with expletives and offensively funny lines, and alongside that there are long spells of disenchantment and career jealousy between Violet and Tom that culminate in an extended shouting match.
You can be reasonably sure Julia Roberts never made a romantic comedy in which the mother of the male lead began a speech by swearing at her son, "F--- you, you dummy!", but that's what Mimi Kennedy does here. However, the comically intemperate interruptions begin to grow repetitive by the movie's end, and the writing never actually attaches repercussions to these outbursts so they're not especially illuminating.
The story tries to distil honesty from a well-worn set-up, but it's not that perceptive when it comes to what divides the errant couple. You also get the sense that everything is subtly weighted towards Segel's Tom, with the How I Met Your Mother star behaving like a stay-at-home sad sack so that guilt weighs on Blunt's Violet. It's not fatal, if only because Blunt has a winning screen personality that doesn't feel forced even in the ropiest of scenes.
At one point the movie pauses just so Violet can watch a funny YouTube video featuring two supporting actors, and that's the kind of diversion romantic comedies usually ruthlessly trim away. The Five-Year Engagement, however, tries to squeeze in every setback and laugh. It's messy and contrary and requires you to give ground — if nothing else, it foretells the married life that comes after the happily-ever-after bit.