Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Five-Year Engagement Movie Review

SPOILER WARNING: I can’t completely discuss my main criticisms of this film without revealing how the story plays out through the end. Read ahead at your own peril.

Emily Blunt is such a charming actress and has such a light breezy quality to her performances that it’s easy to watch her in just about anything. She has generally been the best aspect of bad and mediocre movies like The Devil Wears Prada, The Wolfman and The Adjustment Bureau. Jason Segel is a charming actor of a different sort. He’s funny, but doesn’t force it. Wisecracking comedy comes naturally to him and his big and goofy demeanor is a valuable asset for likability. They make a fine on screen couple in The Five-Year Engagement and initially I found myself, in spite of all inner protestations toward rom-coms, hoping for the best of a lovely little romance. We know going into any romantic comedy that at the end of the movie, no matter what happens as it runs its course, the couple will be together. The trick to be overcome is in making the journey surprising or at least interesting. The Five-Year Engagement gets about twenty-five percent of that formula by being somewhat interesting and almost never surprising.

The premise is an interesting take on the romantic comedy in our modern world of people hopping all over the world for better job opportunities. What happens when Tom Solomon (Segel) from San Francisco gets engaged to Violet Barnes (Blunt) from England and she gets a perfect career offer in Michigan? As happens with many people, life gets in the way of their progress. Tom has a great job as a sous-chef in an upscale restaurant. Violet wants to do post-doc psychology work at Berkeley, but instead it’s a university halfway across the country where she’s accepted. They decide to postpone their wedding and Tom agrees to quit his job (after which he learns his boss was going to name him head chef of a new restaurant she’s opening) and go for two years to the freezing winter of Michigan where potential employers laugh at him for leaving San Francisco. He takes a job making sandwiches in a glorified deli. Life interrupts again when Violet’s post is extended for a couple more years, but in the meantime Tom begins to fall apart at having given up his career that he loves and consigned himself to a life he never wanted to have and doesn’t find enviable.

The counterpoint to their romance is a marriage that occurs haphazardly when Violet’s sister, Suzie (Alison Brie) gets pregnant by Tom’s best man, Alex (Chris Pratt). They are a couple thrown together by unintended circumstances and they stick it out through the years and a second child in spite of obvious disappointments and problems. Tom and Violet just want everything to be perfect before they even start. You see the formation of an end-of-movie lesson to be learned.

Segel collaborated on the screenplay with his writing partner from The Muppets, Nicholas Stoller, who also directed the movie. That the movie is from Judd Apatow’s production company gave me some hope there might be something more than the usual formula for romantic comedies. They make a valiant effort, but eventually succumb to what must be tremendous pressure to apply the same model that’s been used so successfully for other examples in the genre. What starts out as a healthy collaborative relationship turns sour and then someone does something regrettable followed by an emotional upheaval and breakup before they inevitably get back together in the final reel. I expected all that from the beginning, but hoped against hope that I might be surprised either by a change or a twist. Segel and Stoller provide neither.

The makings are mostly there for something much better than what was achieved. Unfortunately the film’s biggest problem is that it’s just plain not funny. Too many of the jokes are bizarrely inappropriate or completely out of left field such as when Winton is suddenly revealed to be something of a Welsh Jackie Chan. It’s all a bit too discomfiting.

The principle tweak on the formula they begin their story with – the idea of the man in the relationship giving up his dreams and becoming emasculated so that his bride-to-be can further her own career – is abandoned in the third act in favor of a predictable storyline that has the Violet becoming subservient to Tom’s career path. This all occurs after Violet’s boss, Winton (Rhys Ifans), makes a pass at her. After her relationship ends, she gets together with Winton and a cop-out of a plot contrivance forces her hand in leaving the job in Michigan, which opens the door to the possibility of reconciliation with Tom. So the film loses the courage of its convictions in putting the female at the fore, being the career-driven half of the couple, by ultimately setting up a situation in which she can play devoted housewife to Tom. There was so much worth exploring in the dynamic of having Tom lost in himself, unsure of himself. In the end, the lowest common denominator audience members win because studios are too afraid that people aren’t ready for anything remotely challenging.

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