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Monday, April 30, 2012

Some Laughs And Unevenness Throughout This ‘Five-Year Engagement’


The Five-Year Engagement:  2 ½ out of 5
Suzie:  This is supposed to be exciting.  This is your wedding.  You only get a few of these.
Chemistry can certainly make up for a film that is way too relaxed.  The Five-Year Engagement is a film that follows a pretty standard formula, despite the few tweaks and R-rated sensibilities, but ultimately never rises above average at best, given effort to shove so much into a film that runs far too long.  It is fortunate that the film has a large, funny, and mostly likable cast.  The leads, in particular, have a strong chemistry together, which makes the film work better than it could have been, were it to be handled differently.  Still, the over-reliance on various tangents and lack of a stronger core makes the film uneven overall, despite being quite funny when it shines best.  The fact that drama plays heavily into the film also reflects on the tonal issues I had, but there is still enough here that I found nice enough to ease into a very mild recommendation for an easy rental.

The film begins with Tom Solomon (Jason Segel) proposing to his girlfriend Violet Barnes (Emily Blunt).  She accepts and the two are on course for marriage.  Following an engagement party, which leads to Tom’s best friend Alex (Chris Pratt) and Violet’s sister Suzie (Alison Brie) hooking up and delivering a surprise series of events on their own, Violet receives game-changing news.  Having applied to various colleges to pursue further education in psychology, she gets accepted in the University of Michigan, which has a post-doctorate program that lasts for two years.  Tom is successfully employed as the sous chef at a fancy restaurant in San Francisco, but decides to stick with his love and move to Ann Arbor with her, effectively delaying the wedding.  It is only after he makes this decision that he learns he was in line to be made head chef at a new restaurant.

In moving to Ann Arbor, Michigan, Violet settles in quickly with her new professor, Winton (Rhys Ifans) and the other students she will be working with, while Tom seeks a new chef job.  Tom ends up working at a sandwich shop with friendly enough people, but even as time passes, Tom does not find himself satisfied.  Things get more complicated as Violet’s work in school proves to be successful enough to extend her stay in the area.  This delays the wedding further and leaves Tom in a difficult position.  The rest of the film balances the difficulties with Tom and Violet’s relationship with the scattered laughs found in their interactions with the various other cast members.


Scattered laughs are problems that this film deals with throughout much of its runtime.  The first half hour is pretty solid, working well at establishing all that is going on, with a genuine likable quality, despite the drama that lurks beneath.  Segal and Blunt have good chemistry together, which works well in grounding the film.  However, after arriving in Ann Arbor and then really settling into this location, the film stretches the story out for way too long.  As a result, despite bouncing humor around throughout, the inherent nature of the drama unfolding and the thin ways in which the story progresses gives the film an uneven issue when it comes to keeping the comedy alive.  The humor is there and it even becomes more assured again during the later parts of the third act, but this is definitely a case where less would have been more.

There are quite a few highlights, which all stem from the large comedic cast involved with the film.  A solid group that includes Kevin Hart, Mindy Kaling, Randall Park, Brian Posehn, Chris Parnell, and David Paymer, among others, all provide a lot of great supporting character work that ranges from quick one-liners to fun instances of jokes that pay off well.  The best work in this category comes from Chris Pratt and Alison Brie (quite a lot of NBC players in this film), who get a lot of space to play out their arc of the film.  As the film was way too long anyway, I can easily see the axe taken to any of these characters, without much loss, but at least there was a lot of good comedic support to achieve laughs within all the film’s excessive padding.


The Five-Year Engagement comes from the Judd Apatow world of comedy (he produced) and has the familiar issue of these films having a lot of raunchy-but-funny comedy, a lot of heart and dramatic tension, but being too long overall.  There are examples where this has worked in spite of the issues (everyone has their own favorite), with my favorite example being Forgetting Sarah Marshall.  Somewhat coincidentally, the team behind ‘Marshall’ is the same group behind ‘Five-Year’, Jason Segel co-wrote this film with writer/director Nicholas Stoller (who are also coming off of their wave of success, after writing/producing The Muppets), but unfortunately, the results are not as effective this time around.  I think the difference surrounds narrative focus, as the film simply drifts along and pads out space with random bits of comedy and redundant amounts of drama, as opposed to handling a familiar premise with any sort of interesting take to make it better.

Two more things to point out about this film.  The first is the weirdness that goes on in it.  Despite being a ultimately forgettable (yet mildly entertaining and warm romantic comedy), we get to see strange moments like Tom’s decision to really let his beard grow at one point, during his lowest points of living in Ann Arbor.  There is also the decision to have at least two moments of severe bloodshed occur.  It is moments like these that really make the film feel unbalanced, despite how “funny” some of these ideas may have seemed in the writer’s room.  The other thing is the soundtrack.  Either Stoller or Segel, or both, made the choice to populate the film with Van Morrison songs and covers.  This is not at all a bad thing, so even during times when I was not to fond of how the film was progressing, at least I had a solid soundtrack to work with.


The Five-Year Engagement is basically a miss for the Apatow Productions team, but not a strong miss.  I would have been happy to appreciate this film more if it took better notice of how everything was balancing out.  I did like the cast and found a lot to enjoy in the many comedic supporting performances, but overall the film is just as I have already described it – mildly entertaining, with a layer or warmth in the chemistry, but ultimately pretty forgettable; unlike the past work that has come from Stoller and Segel working together.  It is unfortunate and although I did not have a terrible time, I hope these two do something again that I can really enjoy.
Tom:  I hope you know that I deserve to get like super-laid for this.
Violet:  What?  Do you want me to wear a cape or something?

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