Super-producer Judd Apatow and his creative minions have given the romantic comedy a much needed shakeup in recent years, embracing humour of a more raunchy and irreverent variety while also pasteurising the classic formula with a welcome degree of sincerity. Still, if last year’s Bridesmaids is any indication, Apatow’s rom-com recipe has yet to be perfected, the film’s serious and silly elements struggling to meld into a satisfying, congruent whole.
Now the producer is back for another crack with The Five-Year Engagement, this time reuniting writer/director Nicholas Stoller with writer/actor Jason Segel, the comedy duo behind the 2008 hit Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Sure enough, this engagement strikes a far more even tone than Bridesmaids, exploring emotional truths whilst maintaining a strong, but not suffocating, comedic edge. Still, like nearly everything that comes out of camp Apatow, The Five-Year Engagement takes twice as long to get to the point as it should, wallowing in a lengthy second act that makes you wish they’d called it The Three-Year Engagement instead.
Unlike the parings in most Hollywood rom-coms — where chemistry is irrelevant so long as they look like Barbie and Ken together — Engagement boasts a believable screen couple in Jason Segel and Emily Blunt (a union that ostensibly began in 2010’s Gulliver’s Travels). Their romance rings true from the first frame, which is crucial, because it’s only a few frames later that Segel’s Tom proposes to Blunt’s Violet. How they arrived at this moment is only ever shared anecdotally, cementing the fact that this isn’t a movie about how two people fall in love, it’s about how two people manage to stay in love once the honeymoon is over — or in this case, forever postponed.
The couple’s complications are initially catalysed by their move from sunny California to miserable Michigan — that’s the movie’s assessment, not mine — where Violet accepts a two-year post-doctorate from the University’s cocksure Psychology Professor, Winton Childs (Rhys Ifans; Anonymous). Initially, Tom thinks nothing of delaying the wedding until she’s finished studying, but after struggling to find work as a chef that compares to the dream job he left behind, regret seeps in. It doesn’t help that Tom’s best friend Alex (Chris Pratt; Moneyball) took his former job and has since married Violet’s younger sister Suzie (Alison Brie; TV’s Community), the two first meeting at what was supposed to be their (Tom and Violet’s) engagement party. Emasculated, Tom slips into a state of depression, growing a handlebar moustache and taking up deer hunting to prove he’s still a provider. If Violet’s not careful, he’ll be knitting her sweaters next.
These scenarios, exaggerated but not forged, result in some solid bouts of drama where the couple must learn the virtues of compromise and transparency. Thankfully, we’re given plenty of reasons to laugh along the way, but it’s nothing like Bridesmaids where one outrageous comedy skit would follow another, instances of pseudo-drama squeezed somewhere in-between. Here, Tom and Violet’s relationship is the main attraction, complimented by bite-sized comical asides that help lighten the mood rather than lose it.
However, that mood does grow a little stale as the film trudges on, Stoller and Segel indulging in a number of unnecessary tangents that shouldn’t have made it past the first draft. I could sense the cinema growing fidgety around 90 minute mark, at which point Tom is still being portrayed as a hopelessly lost soul, and the film is still entertaining the question of “will they or won’t they?” as though it were ever really a question. As a result, the ending some 30 minutes later doesn’t satisfy for the warmth and wit it possesses, it satisfies for merely being an ending.
But hey, at least it does satisfy! You could do a lot worse than The Five-Year Engagement, I just look forward to seeing Apatow and Co. do that little bit better.