THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT"
In Judd Apatow's stable of players, Jason Segel is probably the sweetest. Even when making a raunchy comedy like Forgetting Sarah Marshall or I Love You, Man, there is an earnestness in Segel that always comes through. (It's also part of what made him so effective in The Muppets.) The Five-Year Engagement brings that out more than any other film he's made to date. The final result may not have the same intense laugh-per-minute ratio of some of his previous films or those of producer Apatow, for that matter yet it's a very charming picture that won me over.
Segel plays Tom Solomon, a chef who, in the opening scene, proposes marriage to his girlfriend Violet (Emily Blunt). Not long after, she gets accepted into a psychology program at the University of Michigan. Because he knows how important the opportunity is to her, Tom suggests they simply postpone the wedding for a year or two, at which time they can return to San Francisco and begin married life together. After all, he reasons, he can cook anywhere. Things don't go quite so simply. Violet impresses her professor/mentor (Rhys Ifans) and ends up achieving enough success to make her want to stay in Michigan. Tom, meanwhile, can't find a job as good as the one he gave up. He evolves into a sad shell of his former self. As circumstances continue growing complicated, the wedding is repeatedly postponed, to the chagrin of their respective families. The process is so long that Violet's younger sister (Alison Brie) ends up marrying Tom's best friend (Chris Pratt) and having two children with him.
By now, Judd Apatow's name on a movie promises a laugh-filled experience tinged with a bit of heart. Bridesmaids, The 40 Year-Old Virgin, Funny People, Superbad, and others have all delivered just that. The Five-Year Engagement is probably the first one to flip-flop the formula. There are laughs some of them quite big but the movie is more heart than anything. The screenplay, which was written by Segel and director Nicholas Stoller, doesn't feel the need to play for jokes at every second, and at times, it shoots for smaller, more observant laughs rather than big, broad crowd-pleasers. Essentially, they've made a picture that is primarily interested in examining a relationship; that it does so with some humor is a nice benefit.
Taking a softer approach really allows Segel to show that sweet side. He and Blunt are winning together, creating characters whose deep love for one another feels real. (Interestingly, this comedy creates a more authentic, plausible romance than the dramatic The Lucky One could ever dream of.) Most romantic comedies are not very good, and therefore give off a sense that the leads are in love simply because it's part of the template. By virtue of that fact alone, Engagement is automatically one of the better examples of the genre to come along in the last few years.
The way in which it depicts the ups and downs of a relationship is quite effective, too. Rather than hauling out the stereotypical rom-com complications, it finds something more identifiable to put its characters through. The script is smart about how careers can intrude upon relationships, and how people sometimes want two separate things that simply aren't achievable at the same time. As the plot moves on, we see that Tom and Violet are caught off guard by the obstacles that cross their path. What they thought would be easy turns out to be more complex than they imagined. They want to get married, yet somehow it never quite seems like the right time. Finding a romantic-comedy that strives for this sort of insight is refreshing.
One thing The Five-Year Engagement really does have in common with other Judd Apatow-produced films is that it's a bit too long. Clocking in at 125 minutes, the picture contains a fair number of scenes that could have been cut. There are many supporting players including Brian Posehn as Tom's new co-worker, and Mindy Kaling as Violet's research partner - and the movie seems to want to give each of them their moment. Oftentimes, this occurs at the expense of pace. Scenes go on just a little too long, or seem to contain extraneous material that doesn't advance the central Tom/Violet storyline. Everybody who appears is terrific; some of their bits just belong in the DVD's deleted scenes, not in the final cut. Without this extra stuff, the film would have felt tighter and more focused. Instead, it feels loose and just a bit meandering.
Despite the occasional impatience it inspired, I found myself caught up in The Five-Year Engagement. There were at least five or six massive laughs for me, and I really cared about whether the two leads would ever make it to the altar. Flaws aside, it is a movie that tries to say something about relationships and the things that, for better or worse, shape them. On the whole, it succeeds at that goal. At a time when most romantic-comedies insult the intelligence of the audience, this one goes for something heartfelt. And the sweet, gentle quality of Jason Segel carries it over the finish line.
( out of four)
The Five-Year Engagement is rated R for sexual content, and language throughout. The running time is 2 hours and 5 minutes.
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