' ' Cinema Romantico: The Five Year Engagement

Monday, April 30, 2012

The Five Year Engagement

Tom (Jason Segel) and Violet (Emily Blunt) are laying in bed. She has just informed him that her psychology postdoc at the University of Michigan has been extended, thereby re-postponing their marriage and preventing their move back to Tom's desired home of San Francisco. An argument ensues, and this argument feels natural and justifiable from the standpoint of each character. He asks her to leave. She gets up to go. He asks her to stay. She returns to bed. He asks to her leave again. She becomes flustered. He says: "Can't I be alone with you here?" It's a killer line because it underscores the very real confusion and un-answerable queries Tom and Violet have at this point in their lives.

The next sequence features Tom having what Hollywood people must consider a Midwestern Male Crisis - as in, he has grown an unfetching lumberjack beard and turned into a modern day mountain man, stalking deer and using fur-encrusted glasses at the dinner table, the same dinner table which is adorned with his precious hunting bow. (Note: I'm from the Midwest. I've never hunted a single time in my life.) As complicated and candid as the previous scene is, this one is broad and obvious, and describes the frustrating problem at the core of "The Five Year Engagement."

After meeting cute at a New Year's Eve party that is like the US Weekly version of the costume party in "Beginners" and the requisite courtship, Tom proposes to Violet and she says yes and when she announces she has been accepted to do her post-graduate work in Ann Arbor he is more than willing to sacrifice his own job of graduating from sous chef to head chef at Clam Bar to accompany his future bride. Yes, even if that means having to accept a job putting sauerkraut on sandwiches at a campus deli. Nevertheless, we (and even she) can sense he is not quite at home, and even I suspect the film may not treat Ann Arbor entirely fair, most of us can identify at one point or another in our lives with his sense of displacement. And so when she announces of her intention to stay even longer it raises harsh but realistic questions about a modern-day union. Is there (should there be) a limit to self sacrifice? Where is the dividing line on selfish? How much of yourself do you have to give up for the other person?

Despite the touching chemistry of Segel and Blunt, the screenplay (co-written by Segel himself and director Nicholas Stoller) routinely collapses in on itself by relying on idiotic devices and refusing to allow the relationship to evolve and/or devolve in the natural way. Instead it offers Roadblock Couples in the form of Violet's professor (Rhys Ifans) and Tom's co-worker which resolve themselves, respectively, via foot chases through alleyways and toe amputations. It's often lamented in failed relationships that the man can't commit and, well, Segel and Stoller have trouble committing to their own idea.

The girl on the left! Give her more to do! GIVE HER MORE TO DO!
Over and over they under-utilize what works best. Consider Alison Brie as Blunt's sister Suzie, who does not simply threaten to steal this movie in the first 15 minutes - she threatens to headbutt Blunt, kick Segel in the groin, clutch the movie while cackling, and then taunt Segel and Blunt while holding the movie up over their heads. But as soon as she winds up married to Segel's best bud Alex (Chris Pratt) after a one night stand that goes on forever and starts having kids, she is essentially dialogue-less until the very end. (Whether intentional or not, this is sort of a subtle commentary on the plight of female characters at the movies.)

The editing is just as problematic. Editing is so often thought of just in terms of cutting shots but the editing of William Kerr (who worked on "Bridesmaids", another poorly edited film) and Peck Prior is a failure of tone and an abomination of pacing. It doesn't get in and out of scenes quick enough - particularly in the latter stages when short cuts of single shots or single lines would have worked to maintain the narrative - and they fail to find any sense of rhythm throughout, causing the whole film to waver between adult and juvenile.

Am I being unfair? In a way, yes. Absolutely. There are some wonderful moments in this movie and some good laughs and if his editors had properly done their job and sliced and diced a good half-hour it would have been ever better. But screw it, I'm grading on a curve. Segel the artist asks some interesting questions in this movie but the time has come for him to start providing them with more satisfactory answers.


Anonymous said...

The huge cast is done right, with almost everyone here getting their own chances to show what they got when it comes to comedy, but sadly, Blunt and Segel are sort of left to the side. Still, good flick even though it wasn't as funny as I would have liked it. Good review Nick.

Candice Frederick said...

too bad they couldn't get this one together.

Nick Prigge said...

Dan: Thanks. Blunt & Segel do get left to the side, especially the more the movie progresses. The script just won't let them work their problems out on their own.

Candice: Tell me about it. It was there. It was all THERE, the makings of a really good rom com and it just doesn't see it through. So frustrating.