The Five-Year Engagement
May 4, 2012
Teen rom-coms have a built-in fantasy that serves them well in a way their adult counterparts have difficulty in addressing. They are more likely to deal with the seeming temporary nature of whatever notion of “true love” the main characters find, either directly (all those conversations about “what are we going to do next year”) or indirectly (the audience knows this is a childish lark, but that instills in it a certain innocence – I’d argue that in some ways it’s the lack of a future that gives the genre its power). This is partially why screenwriters tend to skip the college years and move onto the lonely, Type A personality workaholic female looking for love. Her life is figured out, so the movie need only concern itself with slotting that one piece of the puzzle into place to get the “Happily Ever After”. This is all broadly speaking, and I can think of several counter-examples that might be worth examining further, but on a whole, I think there is truth to it, and it is necessary to understand this when approaching the really good aspects of The Five-Year Engagement.
Though their initial meet-cute pops up from time to time, the film essentially begins with Tom (Jason Segel) proposing to his girlfriend of one year, Violet (Emily Blunt). As the title not so obliquely suggests, this engagement lasts quite a long time as a number of circumstances get in the way to prevent the promised nuptials. “So far, so sitcom” you might think, and you’d be half-right. Much of the humour comes from side characters and incidents that rarely have much to do with the central plot, and as such it never really gets above a steady stream of chuckles – save a pretty big laugh here and there – and that’s an unfortunate side-effect of the rather ambling structure of the narrative. It’s also one of the films greatest strengths, in that the series of impediments that face the main couple have little to do with outlandish mishaps or the kind of comic misadventures that would normally befall them in a film like this. Rather, it’s a film about the relatively mundane way in which modern life, especially at a certain age, tends to be somewhat impractical at times for fairy-tale romances. The real crux of their difficulties comes when Violet doesn’t get into Berkley like she hoped, so Tom quits his job as a sous chef (and gives up on the opportunity to run a new restaurant) to move to Michigan where she was accepted – and eventually gets funding – for her postdoc. This could have led to a series of passive-aggressive exchanges and eventual (serious) resentments, but the film takes it all pretty genially. There’s a marked fall-off in Tom’s quality of life, but the slow disintegration is not pushed by major betrayals or selfish acts, just time and a dissatisfaction with life. In that way, it’s similar, but a lot more effective, then last year’s indie drama Like Crazy. The crucial difference is that we actually like these characters and completely believe that they’re in love and in a relationship in a very real, adult way. It’s not about bursts of romantic passion and what to do when that passion fades.
The key to all of this succeeding is Jason Segel and, more importantly, Emily Blunt. We’ve seen Segel do this character in some variation before, and he is very good at it. Blunt is an actress I was never terribly sure about until last year’s ridiculous The Adjustment Bureau, a film so silly that it should never have worked. What was striking about that movie was the incredible chemistry between Matt Damon and Emily Blunt. It’s one of the rare times in recent history I’ve watched a film where I didn’t simply take their love-at-first-sight as a necessity for the plot. She pulls off an even trickier performance in The Five-Year Engagement, as not only do we believe in their relationship from the beginning, she never allows the audience to feel resentment towards her when she her actions could have been interpreted as selfish. She has an easygoing charm about her, and her interactions with Segel play off each other in such a manner that she feels every bit his equal in humour (an area that Segel himself has had problems with previously). Both Blunt and Segel pull off the relationship so well that I’m willing to forgive the occasionally sloppy direction and poor editing that leaves some jokes dead on the screen for far too long. Even the disappointing plot device in the third act isn’t nearly as awful as it could be because their charm and feeling makes it less absurd and even genially sweet.
That third act does betray a certain formulaic streak in the entire final section of the film, unfortunately. It does even worse by Rhys Ifan’s professor character, who was intriguing and not nearly as skeevy as he could have been up until that point. There’s also a female character that’s so pointless and underwritten that I’m not even going to bother to look up her name. It’s by no means perfect, and is at least 15 minutes too long, but there’s enough good here that I’ll forgive the rather cliché ending and the various missteps that occur throughout. I normally say that the chemistry and charisma of the two leads is what makes or breaks a rom-com, and that’s certainly not an issue here. It’s also pretty funny, and there’s a surprisingly smart understanding of relationships, careers, and the banalities that determine our happiness. Flawed as it is, it’s still one of the better rom-coms I imagine we’re going to get this year.