Review: The Five-Year Engagement
Engaging, Yes, But Also Frustratingly Imperfect
By Tom Houseman
May 3, 2012
I hope that Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller understood the difficult challenge they were giving themselves when they began writing The Five-Year Engagement. Virtually all comedies are built around a cohesive narrative that drives forward the plot through conflict, with the result hopefully being comedy. Segel and Stoller's latest, which the former stars in and the latter directed, has only a very loose narrative cohesion, and instead explores a long term relationship through its ups and downs, attempting to understand how modern relationships function. When they succeed it is a thing to behold, but sadly, the successes of the film are less common than the failures.
Most comedies involve protagonists endeavoring to achieve a goal (such as finding their car, dude), but in The Five-Year Engagement, the goal is much hazier. We meet Tom and Violet (Segel and Emily Blunt) the night they get engaged, and watch as their relationship evolves over half a decade. This is a nebulous and complicated task for a film to undertake, and free of the clearly defined structure that Segel and Stoller followed in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and The Muppets, they find themselves floundering. Too often Engagement feels like a scrap book, peeking in at random moments in this couple's relationship, finding typical couple situations and exploiting them for humor, to various degrees of success. Without a thrust of a narrative plot the film meanders and drags, never quite sure where it is supposed to be going.
What is so frustrating is that when the film does find its groove and is able to get into a rhythm, we see the potential for what could have been. Segel and Stoller, as writers, have extraordinary insight into the complexities of modern relationship, and understand the complications that can arrise when people attempt to find a balance between their careers and their love lives. They do not attempt to shove easy answers down our throats, as is the case with so many movies about workaholics who sacrifice romance for professional success. There are some scenes of Engagement that will resonate with anybody who has been in a long term relationship, and will feel heartbreakingly true to life. At its best, this film is one of the most honest romantic comedies ever to come out of Hollywood.
What keeps the film moving even through its weaker moments, and elevates it when it is flying high, are the characters, especially Tom and Violet. Both protagonists feel realistic and well-developed, each with their own desires and hangups that we see develop and unfold as their relationship evolves. This is not like some Apatow films where the wacky guy plays off the straight laced girl. Both characters are funny, but never at the expense of each other, and it is their obvious affection for each other that helps the film push through its rough patches. Both Jason Segel and Emily Blunt earn their share of laughs, getting their opportunities for funny lines and physical comedy. Mostly, though, both actors are so likeable that it makes it easy to care about the romance between their characters.
The film is also packed with side characters who pull their weight. Chris Pratt and Allison Brie serve as the foils to Segel and Blunt, and while Brie's English accent is wildly distracting, both are such gifted comic actors that their presence is welcome in every one of their scenes. Mindy Kalling desperately needs to star in her own movie soon, as she has proven herself a scene stealer in first No Strings Attached and now this film. Joining her in adding copious laughs to the film's ever-growing count are Kevin Hart, Chris Parnell, and the wonderful Brian Posehn.
It is frustrating to have this many good things to say about a movie and, in the end, conclude that it is only pretty good. While Engagement is leagues beyond Forgetting Sarah Marshall in ambition and honesty, it has so much difficulty finding its momentum that it ends up being less successful than Segel and Stoller's first feature-length collaboration. That the duo is clearly seeking to challenge themselves as writers is reassuring, because undoubtedly they will continue to grow and develop their talent. If they are able to maintain this determination they will never fall into the trap that Adam Sandler has, sacrificing humor and cleverness for outrageousness, and they will almost certainly never make a bad movie. They might even make a great movie one day, the kind of romantic comedy that can be placed in the pantheon next to The Philadelphia Story and When Harry Met Sally. Sadly, The Five-Year Engagement is not that movie.