The Five-Year Engagement
Posted on April 26, 2012 at 6:00 pm
Jason Segal co-wrote and stars in the latest in a genre he helped to pioneer — the raunchy but sweet-natured romantic comedy. Films like “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and “I Love You Man” put the misunderstandings and complications of the kind of “marriage plot” comedies over hundreds of years with a more modern casual and generous earthiness. You can’t imagine Doris Day and Rock Hudson laughing at an engagement party audio-visual presentation about all of the girls the groom has had sex with or talking affectionately but frankly about how a gesture of support from him should lead to some major sexual special favors from her. “Do you want me to wear a cape or something?” she asks gamely (the characters in Segal movies are always GGG). “You’ll get the Cirque du Soleil of shows,” she promises with a smile, showing off some impressive mime skills.
Tom (Segal) proposes to Violet (Emily Blunt) on New Year’s Eve, exactly one year from the night they met. They are very compatible, loving, and happy together, and excited about getting married. But he has a job opportunity near their home in San Francisco and she has one at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. His skill as a chef seems more portable and the Michigan job is just two years, so they decide to move. She flourishes in the post-doc program in social psychology and he has poor results in looking for a job, finding friends, and scraping snow and the strain begins to wear on their relationship.
At just over two hours, the movie at times feels as though it is dragging. I know it has to cover five years, but a section where Tom goes kind of feral and ends up hunting deer with a cross-bow is much too long, especially when Tom goes all Grizzly Adams and starts serving mead made from his own honey from an antlered stand. There are too many flashbacks to the night they met. Supporting characters played by Chris Parnell as a stay-at-home-dad who knits, and Kevin Hart and Mindy Kaling as Violet’s colleagues are never as funny as they are intended to be. And it feels like Segal and co-screenwriter/director Nicholas Stoller ran out of ideas near the end as the obstacles to the wedding get less believable, less interesting, and more out of character.
The family interactions work better. Violet’s father gets up at the engagement party to propose a toast to the importance of commitment — awkwardly standing next to his young second wife. Then Violet’s mother gets up to explain that you may think your relationship is a Tom Hanks romantic comedy but “in reality, it’s more like ‘Saving Private Ryan.'” The combination of mystification and jealousy Tom and Violet feel towards another couple they are close to is sharply observed. They genuinely do want her sister and his best friend to be happy together, but they know they are smarter and have a better relationship so it is maddening that the other couple seems to be lapping them. Twice.
The movie is also nicely even-handed in its portrayal of most of the conflicts Tom and Violet face and their genuine good spirits in trying to resolve their issues. When they have a “bird in the hand” argument about delayed gratification (the subject of Violet’s academic work), they are both allowed to make good points.
One reason romantic comedies are so difficult to get right these days is that it is harder and harder to find a reason to keep the couple apart for the two hour running time. The conventions of the pre-sexual revolution era made possible all kinds of humorous and spicy near misses in movies and our knowing that the couple could not have sex until marriage set the stakes high. Couples had to find other ways for establishing their compatibility to each other and the audience. Today’s movies and television shows portray endless omni-sexual cuddle puddles, with encounters that are zipless but never really intimate. Lena Dunham’s “Girls” and its anti-“Sex and the City” is called “authentic” for showing sex that is joyless at best and degrading at worst. It is intriguing to see Segal and his contemporaries reconsidering the implications of this approach on the romantic as well as the comic side.
Parents should know that this film includes very explicit sexual references and situations, very strong language, brief nudity, drinking and drunkenness, comic and briefly graphic violence including character shot by crossbow and accidents to a finger and a toe
Recommendation: Mature teens-Adults
Family discussion: What were the real reasons it took Tom and Violet so long to get married? What were their biggest mistakes?
If you like this, try: “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and “Going the Distance”