Like horror movies, comedies tend to come in waves. When audiences respond to something like There’s Something About Mary, we get deluged with gross out competition. When Scary Movie made a fortune by playing to the lowest common denominator, we wound up with nearly a decade of low-rent “comedies” with no greater ambition than to toss out pop culture references like so many beads at Mardi Gras. So let’s all be thankful that this Judd Apatow generation has popularized a style of comedy based on pointed observation, rich characters and good-natured fun. The Five-Year Engagement is but the latest in a pleasingly long line of films that have more in common with Woody Allen’s best than The Farrelly Brothers’ worst.
The plot is simple on the surface: Tom (Jason Segel, who co-scripted) gets engaged to Violet (Emily Blunt), and the engagement ends up lasting five years, longer than either of them expected. First they get sidetracked by Violet’s career; her position as a social psychologist forces her to move from San Francisco to Maine, and Tom moves with her, postponing the wedding and also his own career as a gourmet chef. As the years tick by, Tom’s resentment grows but he’s unable to communicate his feelings to the woman he loves, behavior she comes to resent herself, and a sad cycle spins on. If it sounds melancholy, that’s because it’s very melancholy, but it’s also very funny throughout thanks to sympathetic performances from Segel and Blunt in particular, who makes the most of her starring role and appears to be en route to genuine superstardom.
Director Nicholas Stoller (who co-wrote with Segel) keeps the film feeling light and breezy even when his heroes are at their lowest ebb. Forcing Emily Blunt to have an entire conversation talking like The Cookie Monster has that effect. But while you’ll laugh, and laugh a lot, the beauty of a film like The Five-Year Engagement is that it manages to be so engaging while portraying emotional situations that feel universal. Long-term relationships are complex beasts with unique difficulties that mainstream movies tend to ignore. If nothing else, admire The Five-Year Engagement for honestly depicting the difficulties involved in balancing a committed romantic relationship and a committed career trajectory. These are real problems handled in a real way, until the end that is, when everything just gets implausibly happy.
The point is a little muddled, there. The ending of The Five-Year Engagement seems to teach a valuable lesson about not waiting for a relationship to be “perfect” before settling down with somebody you love. But that’s not quite what the movie was about. Marriage wouldn’t have “solved” any of their relationship problems, since for all intents and purposes this very long engagement (now there’s a double feature) involves as committed a couple as you’re likely to find. It’s tempting to suggest that this commitment is what actually gets them into trouble, since Tom’s insistence on making personal sacrifices for Violet’s career spurs a chain of resentment that disrupts their entire lives. But that would have happened even if they got married in the first place. The Five-Year Engagement beautifully illustrates the subconscious means by which an individual out of touch with their own personal needs can sabotage their own happiness and the happiness of those around them, but the connection to an actual “engagement” simply feels tenuous, and a finale that revolves around solving the issue raised by the title seems disingenuous compared to a finale that could have better resolved the actual film that preceded it, not that these issues are unaddressed.
The film is a little judgmental towards Tom, and indeed it seems like he takes most of the responsibility for the “down” part of his relationships’ ups and downs. But of course Violet completely ignored the warning signs for years, so she doesn’t get completely off the hook. While great strides are made by the end of The Five-Year Engagement, it’s a happy discovery that neither Tom nor Violet are “fixed” at the end of it. They have character flaws that will continue to cause trouble for both of them, but at least they’re starting to confront their failings and are working together to make the relationship work, rather than just assuming that it will happen because “love conquers all.” But instead of focusing on this, the actual point, The Five-Year Engagement pulls out the stops for a whimsical fairy tale finale that implies that the lack of marriage was the problem. It’s not a fatal blow, it’s just disappointing that the movie got through an entire war without a scratch, only to get winged by shrapnel on the way home.