I suppose that when a film is called “The Five Year Engagement,” one should expect a certain amount of foot-dragging in the narrative. Before we watched the film, my husband joked that he hoped it wasn’t shot in real time. It’s not. But, unfortunately, it often feels as though it is. Turns out, it’s not a lot of fun to watch a relationship fall apart even if you know that eventually, everything will turn out just fine.
We join the too-cute couple, Tom (Jason Segel) and Violet (Emily Blunt), on the night of the proposal. Despite pitfalls at every step of Tom’s elaborate engagement plan, Violet accepts. But, as the title suggests, their journey to matrimony is not without a lengthy series of unfortunate roadblocks. The first is the shotgun wedding of Violet’s sister Suzie (Alison Brie) and Tom’s best friend Alex (Chris Pratt). The unlikely couple hooks up at the engagement party and, with one pee stick, manages to take the wind out of Violet’s wedding planning sails.
Then, Violet’s master plan is thwarted when she receives a rejection letter from the Berkeley post-doc program. She decides she can re-apply in a year and really focus on the wedding, until she gets accepted into the University of Michigan. It’s amazing how quickly and easily she convinces herself that this is a viable alternative. Despite Tom’s burgeoning career as a chef in San Francisco, and their general happiness in the city with their friends and family, moving to Ann Arbor suddenly becomes the be-all for Violet’s aspiring tenure track. She goes through the motions of talking it over with him, but it’s clear she’s already made up her mind.
Tom and Violet had only been together a year when they got engaged, so they never had much of a chance to get used to melding their lives together. Instead of coming up with a mutually beneficial solution, Tom concedes to Violet, cocooning his resentment and disappointment so that it may emerge in the third act, a fully formed Mothra of relationship devastation. This isn’t unrealistic. On the contrary, it’s a little too on the nose. Apart from a few jokes about penis shrinkage, it’s mostly Dramarama for these two.
Rest assured, there is more to the film than cantankerous couple voyeurism. Jason Segel and his “Muppets” writing partner, Nick Stoller, also mix in plenty of saccharine sincerity alongside the cringingly realistic arguments that a couple has when one half has put their own dreams on hold for the sake of the other.
There are also all the drunken shenanigans, dick jokes and random violence that we have come to expect from the Apatow brand. The supporting cast does all the comedic heavy lifting. It’s so polarized that I often wished the film were ONLY about Tom and Violet’s friends and family. Just as Suzie and Alex steal the show from Tom and Violet with their shotgun wedding, Brie and Pratt steal the movie from Segel and Blunt. In both cases, the theft is inadvertent, but the superiority of the pairing cannot be denied. I’m convinced that Alison Brie is some kind of acting superhero what with her ability to nail any acting feat, including a passable British accent. Meanwhile, Chris Pratt plays a slightly more perceptive version of his “Parks and Rec” counterpart, imbuing every line with equal parts hilarity and sincerity.
If they didn’t steal the show, someone else would have. Viable candidates include Lauren Weedman as Tom’s butch boss, Mindy Kaling as one of Violet’s classmates and Brian Posehn and Chris Parnell as Tom’s Michigan pals. Even Tim Heidecker, Kumail Nanjiani and Molly Shannon, whose combined screen time total that of Jason Segel’s bare bottom, are far more enthralling in their cameos than any of Segel or Blunt’s scenes together.
Additionally, I feel kind of bad for the state of Michigan. The characters s**t on it in scene after scene. The narrative montages through the temperate seasons, stopping only in the wintery months. Nearly every establishing shot includes a gray pile of slushy snow. Winters there would be hard on a naturalized San Franciscan, but absolutely no one seems happy to live there. When Tom searches for a sous chef job, he is consistently laughed out of the restaurants for having left his job in the Bay Area. Even people who have embraced the local color (which apparently involves running shirtless through the streets in collegiate support, cross-bow hunting, unkempt facial hair and home-brewed mead) make frequent jabs at their home state, which I doubt is as dreary and backwoods as the screenwriters would have us believe.
But here’s the biggest problem with “The Five-Year Engagement”: When film moguls reach a certain level of fame, they become incontestable. Everything they touch is deemed gold, even if it is, in fact, a pig in turd lipstick. Given my love for “Freaks and Geeks,” I really hate to say it, but I’m afraid Judd Apatow has become one such Faux Midas. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. No comedy needs to be longer than 90 minutes. Period. Even “Bridesmaids”, an otherwise terrific film, had some noticeable fat to trim. But here, the excess is blindingly apparent. Let’s start with cutting all the cliché shots of the Golden Gate Bridge and streetcars, which open the film with the sole purpose of establishing location, when a single line would have sufficed. I lose track of how many times we flashback to the moment when Tom and Violet met, but anything more than once is too much.
Many jokes are driven into the ground so deep, they come out the other side. We get it. Everyone in the Apatowverse is a supernaturally talented improviser. Simply filling your film with talented people does not give you a license to just let them “do their thing” unfettered. Actors need fettering (especially actors who double as screenwriters). There is a reason why people take classes on how to write and make movies. It’s because there are rules. I’m not saying it’s never OK to break the rules. But you should have a comprehensive awareness as to why you’re doing it. For the record, just REALLY liking a scene is not a good enough reason.
There is also the sad fact that Jason Segel’s raunchy, lovesick puppy dog shtick is wearing thin. In fact, the entire Apatowverse is. Bawdy rom-coms are no longer a novelty hand. Unfortunately, it appears that these folks have no other cards. Perhaps it’s time to let someone else play.