Friday, April 27, 2012

The Five-Year Engagement: Can't commit

The Five-Year Engagement (2012) • View trailer
Three stars. Rating: R, for profanity, sexual candor and fleeting nudity 
By Derrick Bang

The engagement itself staggers along for five years, and it takes about that long to watch this film.

Or so it seems.

The morning after a delightful engagement party, which allows Violet (Emily
Blunt, left) and Tom (Jason Segel, second from left) to announce their pending
marriage, they're surprised to discover that his best friend, Alex (Chris Pratt),
and her sister, Suzie (Alison Brie), spent the night together. Truth be told,
Alex and Suzie are equally surprised by the situation.
A sweet, amusing and saucy romantic comedy is buried somewhere within the leaden mess of The Five-Year Engagement, which occasionally flickers into life and reveals The Film That Might Have Been. With the benefit of tighter editing and the objectivity needed to jettison some of the wandering narrative detours that just hang on the screen, like limp laundry, director Nicholas Stoller — who co-wrote the script, with star Jason Segel — might have delivered a decent result.

But at 124 minutes, this inexcusably self-indulgent exercise in slow torture feels interminable. The story goes on and on and on and on, until we’re ready to scream at the contrivance of yet another emotional roadblock that separates our two main characters, and thus prevents the film from finally grinding to its fitful conclusion (a wholly predictable outcome, I might add).

Stoller and Segel previously collaborated on 2008’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall, another comedy of love’s labors that adopted a similar kitchen sink approach to its core storyline. The problem, in both cases, is a lack of focus; Segel, the writer, needs to be reined in and persuaded that he’s not necessarily the best judge of what works for Segel, the actor.

We’re introduced to Tom (Segel) and Violet (Emily Blunt) on the happiest day of their made-for-each-other relationship, as he honors the one-year anniversary of their first “date” — actually a midnight kiss at a New Year’s Eve party, where they met — with a proposal. Actually, he intends to surprise her with a adorably elaborate setting for this proposal, but he’s not good at keeping secrets, and fumbles the approach.


There’s a world of difference between an actor fumbling dialogue, in character, and an actor merely fumbling dialogue. Pay attention to this opening scene, as Segel and Blunt navigate these first few pages of script. The line deliveries are awful, the timing equally poor; the sequence plays more like a first rehearsal — and a bad one, at that — than a take preserved for use in the finished movie.

Much of The Five-Year Engagement suffers from such clumsiness, as if Stoller abdicated his directorial responsibilities and let random set visitors vote on which take to accept. However it happened, the result is a film that repeatedly starts, stops and stalls without warning, like a junker that can’t quite make it off the used-car lot.

But back to details:

Tom is a well-respected sous chef at Birch, a San Francisco restaurant whose kitchen is run by the tyrannical and foul-mouthed Chef Sally (Lauren Weedman, nowhere near as funny as she’s intended to be). Violet, devoted to academia, hopes for a post-doctoral assignment in social psychology at UC Berkeley. Tom and Violet inform both sets of parents, plan the wedding, attend an engagement party — where Tom’s best friend and work colleague, Alex (Chris Pratt) mounts the most embarrassing photo montage ever — and go through all the usual motions.

But UC Berkeley never comes through, which turns Violet into an increasingly agitated mess. Finally, to her relief, she gets a two-year offer ... from the University of Michigan. Tom, willing to be a good sport, abandons his career-making position at Birch and follows Violet to the frozen climes of Ann Arbor. After all, that’s what folks in love do: They make short-term sacrifices for each other.

They also agree to postpone the wedding, “until things settle.”

Both sets of parents exchange knowing glances. Violet’s divorced folks, in particular, worry that if she waits too long, her four beloved grandparents may not be around to witness the eventual marriage. (Cue one of the film’s best running gags.)

Violet blossoms in the U of M psych department, under the guidance of charismatic faculty advisor Winton (Rhys Ifans). She also befriends fellow grad students Vaneetha (Mindy Kaling), Ming (Randall Park) and Doug (Kevin Hart).

Tom ... copes. He settles for a job making sandwiches at Zingerman’s Deli, where he bonds with co-worker Tarquin (Brian Posehn), a pickle-obsessed misanthrope with a flair for non-sequiturs. At an obligatory university function, Tom also meets Bill (Chris Parnell), a “faculty spouse” who knits hilariously oversized sweaters and likes to shoot deer.

Tom is unhappy and unfulfilled, but won’t admit it, not wanting to rain on Violet’s joyful parade. But when her position is extended another two years — at least — he loses his mooring, becomes rather unhinged and embraces his caveman side. Suddenly, their home fills with items crafted from deer antlers, deer hide and anything else Tom can put to use.

Again, not as amusing in context, as it might have sounded on paper.

Alex, back in San Francisco, has earned the Birch promotion Tom deserved, and also married Violet’s somewhat quirky sister, Suzie (Alison Brie). They visit long enough to be appalled by Tom’s transformation, setting the stage for the next act.

Pratt and Brie, it should be mentioned, are a far better “fit” for this film’s tone, than Segel and Blunt. Alex and Suzie breathe desperately needed life and vitality each time they appear, which should be more often. It’s disastrous when secondary characters are more interesting — and funnier — than the stars, and that happens a lot here; I also wish we could spend more time with Vaneetha, Ming and Doug.

(But not if that would make the film longer!)

Stoller has no sense of atmospheric continuity; the narrative tone is all over the map. Too much of the film is dominated by Segel’s signature hang-dog frumpiness — an affectation that wears thin very quickly — but then, suddenly, we’ll be jolted by a gory Monty Python-esque sight gag that shoots gushing blood all over the screen. Elsewhere, two folks will engage in messy, after-hours deli sex while smearing food and condiments all over each other.

Thankfully, we’re spared the gross-out, scatological humor that has become ubiquitous in so many of today’s raunchy sex comedies, but Stoller and Segel are plenty liberal with other sorts of vulgarity, and you’ll wince and think ick more than once.

Mostly, though, the saga of Tom and Violet’s never-gonna-happen marriage lurches from one delay to another through clumsy contrivance. Stoller and Segel try to have it both ways: They clearly aim for tasteless slapstick, suggesting a frivolous tone, but they also want us to commiserate with Tom, in a real-world sense, because of how his entire life has fallen into shambles.

But one cannot take these events seriously, given sight gags that involve Tom driving a dead deer home in his car’s passenger seat, because it keeps sliding off the vehicle’s roof.

So ... flippant farce, or heartfelt melodrama? By trying to be both, The Five-Year Engagement winds up being neither.

Blunt, bless her heart, works hard to accommodate the varying moods of any given scene; she’s so talented — so subtly adept — that she almost always pulls it off. Violet is (more or less) this story’s sole firmly grounded character, almost never forced to participate in gag-laden buffoonery. Only almost, though; Violet does endure body-damaging injury here and there, and again we wonder: This is funny?

No, not really ... particularly when Alex and Suzie chew Tom out over one violent episode that involves their little daughter. A “serious” lecture, regarding how a child likely has been psychologically damaged for life, in this mostly larkish romp?

Alex’s anger simply doesn’t “play” ... nor do quite a few other scenes. The Five-Year Engagement takes forever to deliver its moral — that couples need to be honest with each other, embrace destiny and trust details to work themselves out later — while we suffer through at least three almost-but-not-quite endings.

“Is it finally, really over?” I muttered to my Constant Companion, as the screen went dark.

Thankfully, yes, it was.

1 comment:

  1. The film is definitely a little too long for it’s own good, but what it does work with is showing an impressive cast that is able to bring laughs out of this material, no matter what the tone is. Good review Derrick.