Let’s Just Get Through This
A few years from now, The Five-Year Engagement might be remembered—or better, forgotten—as a blip on the radar screens of cowriter and star Jason Segal and producer Judd Apatow’s careers. By then, they may have both gone on to greater comic achievements. That’s the best case. In the worst case, if, for instance, they go on to make more movies like this one, together or apart, then The Five-Year Engagement might look like the beginning of the end.
That end begins like this. Segal plays Tom, another iteration of his gangly, overenthusiastic, too-broadly-smiling goon character, here a sous chef at a popular San Francisco restaurant. Emily Blunt plays Violet, a psychology student who dreams of securing a teaching slot at Berkeley. Tom is pulling off one of those elaborate proposals where candles are lit, friends enlisted to assist, and memories evoked of their meet-cute. (In this instance, at a New Year’s Eve party, which is really just an excuse to put Segal in a giant pink bunny suit and Blunt in a Princess Diana outfit: she’s British, get it?)
The engagement is announced at a preternaturally beautiful bed and breakfast in wine country, and all seems perfect. Then the hammer comes down: Violet gets into a school, but it’s the University of Michigan. And so Tom hangs up his apron and heads to the Midwest, starting the long dark night of his culinary soul.
Prior to this development, The Five-Year Engagement is perfectly happy to bumble along in a halfheartedly comic and genial kind of way. But by sending Tom and Violet off to a generically imagined Michigan so that it can tear their relationship apart, the film takes on quite a bit more than it can bear. Bright and gauzy yuppie bantering about life and love in soothingly pretty Restoration Hardware-approved settings: that’s the proper speed for this story. But once the couple is metaphorically buried in the Midwest, Tom immediately loses his zest. Unhappy working at a sandwich shop, he grows a beard, starts hunting (you know, because it’s Michigan), and stacks up resentments against Violet—who is either implausibly incurious about this situation or just an extraordinarily bad psychologist. This is all well before Tom realizes that Violet’s department head, Winton (Rhys Ifans, working almost as hard to save this movie, as he did Notting Hill), is angling to replace him in her affections.
A lot goes on during the film’s Bataan Death March-esque sojourn in Michigan, little of it worth repeating. The screenplay—by Segal and director Nicholas Stoller—wants to show how detours from a life plan can metastasize into greater miseries. It also wants to throw in a few jokes, so viewers can forget that what they’re watching is so miserable (a good deal of the film’s middle section follows Tom slowly losing his mind from depression). The film’s efforts to alleviate the gloom include a crossbow bolt in the leg, a toe amputated because of frostbite, some grotesque Asian stereotypes, and an almost-sex scene involving potato salad and hot sauce that comes from so deep in left field that it could leave David Lynch scratching his head and wondering what the hell was going on.
These efforts lead to no emotional or entertainment payoff. The Five-Year Engagement is too obviously putting Tom and Violet through the relationship wringer for a set amount of time before returning them to the light-rock-scored Bay Area nirvana of the opening scenes. Were any of this trauma played with a hint of clever malice or even just old-fashioned comic timing, it might be less of a preordained slog. But as it is, the movie seems to be assembled by an entirely different set of filmmakers trying to imitate an Apatowian comedy, with the shock-language and moody leads, but not understanding what makes that formula work.
The Five-Year Engagement constitutes a tremendous, almost incomprehensible, drop from the Apatow-produced Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which not only riffed smartly off Segal’s overwrought intensity, but honestly mined its heartbreak for both laughs and a couple tears without compromising either. Here, Stoller wrings the juice from the script’s precious few jokes by repeatedly cutting too late and relying on laughing reaction shots. What initially comes off as amiability turns quickly to smugness and self-satisfaction: see, isn’t this funny?
The answer is no. No. A thousand times, no.