The Five-Year Engagement (2012) comes close to pulling it off. It wants to be a modern, realistic romance, one that is both substantial and funny, turning on a dime between moods, but it doesn’t want to do the work. It has some funny scenes and some scenes that, while painful, seem true. The problem is that it simply gives us the same clichés and plot-driven romantic comedy behavior dress up as a modern, realistic romance. Further, though it comes close, coming close to being a modern, realistic romance is still a long way off from being an enjoyable experience.
I’m trying to imagine how much more unbearable the movie would be if it weren’t for Jason Segel and Emily Blunt, who play Tom and Violet, who fall in love, get engaged and then let life put off their marriage. Segel and Blunt are appealing and funny, sweet and likable, and we want them to succeed; therefore, it’s more disappointing that they aren’t in a better movie. They do their very best, but they’re undercut by the story, which makes us believe they are smart then pulls the rug from underneath us (and them) by forcing them to act stupid.
Perhaps it was obvious that I would be so disenchanted with The Five-Year Engagement. One of my biggest annoyances in movie romances is arbitrary plot obstacles being endlessly thrown in front of the couple. That’s all this movie is. When Tom and Violet get engaged, they are in San Francisco where Tom works as a promising chef. While they’re planning the wedding, Violet gets accepted into a graduate program at the University of Michigan. Tom figures he can cook anywhere and he moves to support Violet. The campus environment provides the scriptwriters (Segel and Nicholas Stoller, who also directs) with any number of tired dangers to threaten Tom and Violet’s relationship as Tom’s career stalls and Violet attracts the attention of a smooth professor (Rhys Ifans). From there, our couple agonizingly gravitates further and further away from each other.
Even if it’s familiar, Segel and Blunt display a charm that makes it seem possible they could save well-trod material, but in The Five-Year Engagement, they aren’t given the chance. The script is indulgent and wants to be about two dozen things at once without every fully committing to any of them. There are scenes that might work on their own, but they are sandwiched between scenes that aren’t consistent so they just seem bizarre. The final romantic climax is fantastic, but only out of context. Within this movie, which has prided itself on a pseudo-realism, it can’t be believed.
Individual moments stick out in my mind as being funny, or truthful, or lovely, but when taken as a whole it’s a laborious mess. The style is so disjointed, we lose even our admiration for Tom and Violet and, deadly for a romance, even wonder if they wouldn’t really be better off splitting up, if for no other reason than it would be over sooner. It’s a strange sensation; my memory is dominated by how dreary the experience was, yet I can think of upward of 10 highlights that were quite admirable. Many movies are inferior to their trailers, but The Five-Year Engagement works only as a trailer.
That’s why The Five-Year Engagement is so disappointing, it has moments that are very good, but they’re at the service of a movie that is very bad. It’s hard to get too invested in people or their relationship if we don’t know who they’re going to be from moment to moment. When we can’t trust the filmmakers to play fair with us, we’re taken right out of it, and at that point, the experience starts to feel long.
Segel and Blunt are splendid, and they are joined by some of the funniest people on television including Chris Pratt, Alison Brie and Mindy Kaling, but their contributions are all in a vacuum. There’s also David Paymer, Jacki Weaver and Jim Piddock as various parents of Tom and Violet, but they are on the periphery. This is Tom and Violet’s story, and as good as Segel and Blunt are, they can’t be all things to all people, even if the script wants them to be.
Stoller and Segel are frequent collaborators, their biggest success being Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008), which Segel wrote and Stoller directed. That movie trod a similar risky line of outrageousness and realism, but succeeded because it did the work to earn its goofy diversions and never got too far afield from its comedic roots.
Movies are an art not a science; it’s possible to have all the right ingredients but still pull something other than a cake out of the oven. It feels as if Segel and Stoller took all their ideas they hadn’t used anywhere else, shoehorned them into a by-the-numbers romantic comedy plot and hoped for the best. The Five-Year Engagement falls flat.