Monday, May 14, 2012

The Five-Year Engagement

THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT (Nicholas Stoller, 2012)

Tom Solomon (Jason Segel) and Violet Barnes (Emily Blunt) are ready to get married, but life circumstances have a way of delaying their plans in THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT. The San Francisco-residing lovebirds put their matrimonial designs on hold when she gets accepted into the University of Michigan’s graduate school but not the one at nearby University of California, Berkeley.  Facing imminent relocation to Ann Arbor for two years, they don’t have the time to pull together a wedding.

Tom quits his job as a sous chef so they can remain together.  He supports Violet pursuing her career in psychology and academia, although the sacrifice stings a bit more when it is followed with the knowledge that he was about to receive the chance to run a restaurant.  While he’s disappointed to miss out on the opportunity, he expects not to have any problems finding work in Michigan.

The Midwest proves not to be as hospitable as he imagined it, though.  Cooking jobs, especially at the compensation rate to which he’s accustomed, are virtually nonexistent.  He lands employment at a wildly popular delicatessen, but making sandwiches isn’t what Tom envisioned for himself.  The cold, snowy winters aren’t much to his liking either.  While Violet thrives, Tom descends into a funk that deepens when it appears their stay in Ann Arbor will be longer than anticipated.

The title of THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT incorrectly suggests that the tension between Tom and Violet stems from the obstructions keeping them from the altar.  While their families and friends are perturbed by the seemingly perpetual postponements, these two act unaffected by their inability to become legally joined.  They behave as a committed couple and present themselves to others as such.  All they lack is the paperwork.

No, the widening rift in the relationship comedy comes from Tom feeling Violet may not fully appreciate what he is forgoing for her benefit while she is frustrated that he won’t communicate sufficiently with her about his dissatisfaction.  THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT is most successful when focusing on the two of them together fending off the pressures others would put on their decisions.  The more it drifts from Tom and Violet’s front, whether it’s united or not, the more it becomes sidetracked with subplots and characters of little consequence.  Some of these scenic diversions, like Violet’s professor Winton (Rhys Ifans) trying to explain the proper pronunciation of his dog’s name, add amusing observational humor to the mix.  Director Nicholas Stoller, who co-wrote the screenplay with Segel, includes a preponderance of not unwelcome but unnecessary scenes that the background begins to squeeze out the main story.

Inevitably Tom and Violet’s journey as a couple reaches a critical juncture where they must determine how or if to clear a path out of the thicket blocking them.  To this point THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT has fancied itself more levelheaded and emotionally realistic than similar films and deserves such a designation, but then it loses all of the accrued goodwill. The characters seem halfhearted in following the prescribed plot mechanics, yet they behave as the genre says they must.  That’s not to say the people in these films aren’t permitted to make dumb or bad decisions, just that they need to develop organically.  THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT eventually rallies from these big missteps, but the damage can’t quite be repaired in full.  That goes double for much of the unfunny and lazy vulgarity decorating the film.

Segel and Blunt come across believably as a loving couple struggling to balance challenges in their long-range plans and usually trying their best to resolve them.  As Tom’s best friend Alex and Violet’s sister Suzie, Chris Pratt and Alison Brie provide a funny counterexample.  Pratt, who’s in the habit of stealing scenes on TV’s PARKS AND RECREATION, provokes laughter with his belief in saying what he thinks no matter how stupid or insensitive it might sounds.  Alex represents an exaggerated standard of how to talk in a relationship, but his directness isn’t entirely a bad idea.  Brie reacts to his idiocy with a mixture of affection and disapproval that shows these two have figured out how to talk.  (She also shares a standout scene with Blunt in which they conduct a serious conversation in Elmo and Cookie Monster voices.)

Like life, THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT can be messy and irrational.  The shame is that the film doesn’t need to be those things quite to the degrees that they are.

Grade: C+

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