[11 September 2012]
Decades after the Fatty Arbuckles and The Bowery Boys, in enters producer mogul Judd Apatow, who seemed to be hell bent on bringing the man/child archetype back to a younger audience. The comedic threshold of Apatow’s talent show of players like Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill have proven themselves to be aficionados at capturing the typical bumbling man/child without veering too far away from that style of comedy that it originated from.
What’s so special about the writing team of Nicholas Stoller/Jason Segel under the helm of Apatow, is that they have managed to tap into the struggle of being the everyday man who falls short of his own expectations, including societies and still come up with humiliating comedic punches at every turn.
While most of the Apatow clan has leapt out of its comfort zone in dramatic genres, Jason Segel in The Five-Year Engagement has once again proven that he’s more than willing to reach out of his bounds to push himself past his limitations without having to leave the genre of comedy to do so, although he’s receiving critical praise for playing a depressed slacker in The Duplass Brothers’ Jeff, Who Lives At Home.
Segel, unlike maybe his Freaks and Geeks costar Seth Rogen, is an open actor, who isn’t afraid to use his gawky energy to explore his own short comings beyond what his image projects on the big screen. Seeing Segel walk uncomfortably in his 6’ 4” frame is just the tip of the emotional iceberg of baggage most of his characters carry on their back. These days for as many “regular Joe” characters that are out there, there’s a dozen superficial jokes to be made about their physique, leaving the rest of the films to fill in the blanks with fat humor, and failing to draw on why that character is the way he is.
In Forgetting Sarah Marshall he takes on the role of the stereotypical woman, a weepy youthful man who hasn’t come into adulthood just yet, shown at every unflattering angle imaginable as he blows his nose at a loved up couple while trying to get over his ex. In The Five-Year Engagement, Segel transitions into somewhat of an adult, Tom, a San Francisco sous chef who’s moving upwards in his career becomes engaged to Violet (Emily Blunt), a psychology researcher who following the engagement gets in to the University of Michigan’s graduate program. The move forces the two to acclimate to life in a new location, with Tom putting his career on hold, and Violet coming into her own, on top of trying to plan a wedding.
While Segel does borrow from that formula to acknowledge his lack of appeal for Hollywood standards, he’s also used those regular Joe conventions as a frame to build from the inside out on his projects much like something out of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. Penning most of his own leading roles, which he admits come from life experiences, most of his characters are bordering on pathetically creepy, obsessed lovelorn, and most of all vulnerable guys with heart, and actually care about how they look while addressing how acutely aware they are that the women they’re opposite is out of their league.
What’s most enjoyable about Segel’s brand of comedy, and what’s especially highlighted in The Five-Year Engagement, is the slow unfurling of his character’s emotional security as a man. Constantly in flux The Five Year Engagement’s Tom’s true feelings about his position in Violet’s world bubbles to the surface in realistic fights that don’t play for laughs, but for sincerity, which exudes off of Segel with lines like “It makes me feel like crap when you say I don’t know anything”. Eventually he admits to feeling emasculated and terrible about his lack of success and what he does or doesn’t bring to the relationship.
The most important aspect about Segel’s brand of mixing vulnerability with comedy is the rare honesty in his performance. As the layers come off of each of his characters it’s easy to deduce why those layers were there in the first place. For The Five Year Engagement’s Tom, his emotional immaturity and his lack of communication about his unhappiness stem from his parents’ inability to communicate. This plausible thread makes the real comedic punch that manifests out of hilarity based on self-doubt and vulnerability shine. One scene sees Segel continuing to lose his identity as he turns into an un kept hunter with odd facial hair, who takes pride in fermenting his own honey meed in a Chewbacca-like sweater that his new friend knits for him (whom he obviously has nothing in common with). It’s these moments that lend for the more dramatic tones to slip right in, never feeling force-fed, and most importantly, never talking down to the audience.
If there’s a surprise in going to see Segel’s films it’s that not only does he make the audience believe (sometimes improvised) dialogue that comes out of his mouth, but it’s easy to see Segel genuinely believes his own words too. While some comedies take themselves too seriously or not serious enough to highlight both comedic and dramatic moments, Segel’s writing straddles both worlds and settles for realism, instead. No matter what askewed version of himself he plays in comedies, Segel knows what people want to see.
In addition, The Five-Year Engagement DVD does even more to highlight Segel’s charm off screen as well, with a behind the scenes shooting schedule, detailing both Ann Arbor, MI and San Francisco, CA where the film was shot. The BluRay edition packs an extra punch with a line-o-rama, an epically long gag reel, and a terrifically funny side plot look at Rhys Ifans performance as Segel’s rival Winton Childs.