April 27, 2012

The Five-Year Engagement

Grade: C +
Director: Nicholas Stoller
Starring: Jason Segal, Emily Blunt, Chris Pratt, and Alison Brie
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 2 hr. 4 min.

Beyond the requisite nude and crude guffaws, The Five-Year Engagement is a formulaic Judd Apatow production that strikes a creaky chord of monotony as a rom-com built around the deconstruction of a seemingly sturdy relationship. Off that basic premise, the film has already co-opted elements from 500 Days of Summer, Blue Valentine, and Like Crazy, and that’s just looking back through three years of cinema.

The film’s purported hook is that it begins where most romantic comedies end: a boy and girl, deep into a long-term relationship, deciding to finally tie the knot. Substitute Emily Blunt for Mila Kunis, and Five-Year Engagement could be the unofficial sequel to Forgetting Sarah Marshall, both collaborations between writer-director Nicholas Stoller and star Jason Segal.

Life becomes complicated as soon as Tom (Segal), a sous chef working in a high-end San Francisco restaurant, and Violet (Blunt), an aspiring academic psychologist, get engaged. Their impending nuptials are first upstaged when Tom’s oafish chef buddy Alex (a scene-stealing Chris Pratt) and Violet’s sister Suzie (Alison Brie) hook up and hurriedly hold a shotgun wedding. Then Violet, after being rejected by Berkeley, is accepted to a two-year research post at the University of Michigan. Tom, on the cusp of being named top chef of his own eatery, rather willingly leaves his job and moves with Violet to Ann Arbor.

The laughs in Five-Year Engagement—a film that feels as long as its title suggests—come in fits and spurts, filtered through a series of disjointed segments and sketchily written side characters. The acting talent often outstrips the material, particularly Violet’s coterie of college classmates (played by Mindy Kaling, Kevin Hart and Randall Park) and their pervy department head (Rhys Ifans), and Violet’s daft mom Sylvia (the wonderful Jacki Weaver). Chris Parnell slots in as a fellow faculty husband with a penchant for deer hunting and knitting. Brian Posehn—who plays Tom’s boss at Zingerman’s, a renowned hangout where Tom finds work making deli sandwiches—is basically asked to occasionally pop up and say something risqué. And Molly Shannon is onscreen for literally no more than 15 seconds.

So much feels off-kilter, including the fact that nothing is really impeding Tom from launching his own restaurant in Michigan, or that a bustling college town like Ann Arbor is cast as a barren, Dakota-esque winterscape that would trigger Tom’s descent into depressive cabin fever.

The appeal of Five-Year Engagement leans heavily on the interplay between Segal and Blunt. The two work well together—they practiced being as love interests in Stoller’s version of Gulliver’s Travels—but don’t seem completely at ease in their roles. Segal works best as the endearing goof (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, I Love You, Man, The Muppets, and even Bad Teacher). He’s less convincing as the long-term love interest for Violet or a young, obsessively energetic minx like Audrey (Dakota Johnson), Tom’s flirtatious coworker. Frankly, Blunt doesn’t exude a tenth of the chemistry with Segal that she did with Matt Damon in the sci-fi thriller The Adjustment Bureau.

The Five-Year Engagement rambles along in the same vein as Tom and Violet’s courtship, with good parts that are generally worth enduring the mundane ones. But, the film is also like the stale donuts Violet uses in her oddball college research experiment: not very satisfying.

Neil Morris

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