REVIEW: Ambitious Five-Year Engagement Explores the Confusion of Couplehood in Grown-Up Ways
The Five-Year Engagement begins where a lot of movies would end, with a proposal. Tom (Jason Segel), a chef, is driving to a New Year's Eve party with his girlfriend of a year, Violet (Emily Blunt), a psychology postdoc. He's so visibly nervous that she's worried he's unwell, questioning him until he pulls over to the side of the road, slams down a box containing a ring and confesses that he was going to ask her to marry him that night. He still does, and she still insists on going through with his plan of a surprise rooftop romantic dinner at the restaurant in which he works. That's because Tom and Violet are in love, and they're also nice, down-to-earth, well-intentioned people, qualities that suffuse the film as well, generally for the better but sometimes to its detriment.
The Five-Year Engagement is the most recent collaboration between director Nicholas Stoller and star and co-writer Segel, who have worked together on the likes of The Muppets, Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek. This film is their most ambitious not because of its long arc but because its dramatic currents are so submerged and minimal — there's never any doubt that Tom and Violet belong together, just that they may not find the right place in which to do so. This unhurried comedy is devoted to realistic relationship issues like having to quit your job to move somewhere with your significant other, which is commendable while also posing a challenge. Tom and Violet sometimes feel like cuddly side characters in search of a main plot rather than anchors to base a film around; they're solicitous of each other's feelings to the point where they don't acknowledge their own.
It's a good thing these characters are played by Segel and Blunt, who share enough dorky charisma to carry The Five-Year Engagement through a sprawling runtime to a deservedly happy ending. As Tom, Segel riffs comfortably on the beta male persona he's honed over the years, portraying an accommodating guy who thinks he should be fine with putting his career on hold to head to Michigan when Violet gets accepted to a psych program there, even though he actually feels miserable and emasculated. And Blunt, who's capable of being cut-glass chilly when a role calls for it, is funny and warm as the ambitious Violet, who's torn between being uncomfortable with the sacrifice Tom's making for her and knowing that in her chosen field, her options are limited.
So Tom and Violet set up a life in Michigan and agree to postpone the wedding until the moment's right. Meanwhile, elderly grandparents start dying off; Tom's best friend, Alex (the always welcome Chris Pratt), becomes a success in the job Tom left behind; and Violet's sister Suzie (Alison Brie) faces unexpected but felicitous motherhood. One reason the film's central couple at times seem inadequate is that there's so much comedic talent in the smaller roles. Pratt and Brie, MVPs on Parks and Recreation and Community, respectively, make a great accidental couple-turned-model pairing. Brian Posehn is very funny as Tom's gourmet sandwich shop boss, as is Chris Parnell as a stay-at-home dad whose knitting hobby leads to some of the film's best visual gags. And I was especially charmed by Violet's psych department, overseen by Rhys Ifans' Professor Childs and incidentally diversely staffed by Mindy Kaling, Randall Park and Kevin Hart; they're genial colleagues whose interactions are lightly spiced with competition for limited academic positions.
The overt theme of The Five-Year Engagement is that there's no such thing as "the perfect moment," but the underlying one is "for the love of God, just say what's on your mind." As plausible as long campaigns of passive-aggressiveness may be (Tom, for instance, suddenly declares that he doesn't want kids during one family visit, noting that "sometimes the biggest balls are the ones left unused"), they're not terribly fun to watch on-screen. Any investment in Tom and Violet's endangered coupledom starts to get eroded by frustration with their lack of communication as the months tick by and they drift apart. There's a lot of downtime between gags, though when they do arrive they're generally good, whether involving an accidental arrow shooting or an alcohol-fueled chase down a wintry street in which Ifans's character demonstrates some impressive parkour skills.
The Five-Year Engagement is, for a movie in which a guy fakes an orgasm and (in a separate incident) stuffs a dead deer in his car's sunroof, very grown-up. It's grown-up in its assessment of how making sacrifices for someone else can also be a selfish act, and it's grown-up in its consideration of how, while love is all very well and good, you also have to make practical decisions about where and how you'll live. Sometimes, watching it, you wish it'd be a little less grown-up and a little more flexible in terms of what works as a comedy. (It sometimes feels like a lighter, happier take on Like Crazy or Blue Valentine.) But it's rare to see main characters as grounded and plausible as Tom and Violet are, and when they finally find their way back into each other's arms, it feels earned.