(by Dustin Putman
Most romantic comedies follow the same pattern: two characters meet, they fall in love, eventually break up over some conflict or misunderstanding, and then rekindle their flame in time for the upwards camera pull as they kiss - usually in the middle of the street or some other unlikely place where their love knows no boundaries. While not exactly overthrowing conventions entirely, "The Five-Year Engagement" takes the invaluable time to listen to and understand its characters, mixing things up enough that it feels neither musty nor tired. Its protagonists are fully committed and in love at the very start, and what follows is a realistic deconstruction of their seeming soul-mate bond - in good times and bad - as it further develops over a half-decade period of significant personal change and sacrifice. The second collaboration between writer-director Nicholas Stoller and co-writer/star Jason Segel following 2008's "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," "The Five-Year Engagement" stands as anything but a sophomore slump, the two of them tackling a still wildly funny, still very much R-rated, but altogether more mature and satisfying project with a deeper emotional current. Article continues below
They met at a superhero-themed costume party on New Year's Eve. Tom Solomon (Jason Segel) was Super Bunny, dressed head to toe in pink pajamas that would give Ralphie Parker nightmares. Violet Barnes (Emily Blunt) was Princess Diana, whom she reasoned was strong enough to not need special abilities. One year later, they're a happy young couple marriage-bound after Tom pops the question. An engagement soiree follows, and then comes the planning, but before they are able to pick a date Violet learns she has been accepted into a prestigious psychology program at the University of Michigan. Eager to support her dreams, Tom leaves behind his chance of becoming head chef at an upcoming new restaurant and agrees to follow her from beautiful San Francisco to the decidedly snowier, less cultured Ann Arbor. Violet's program is initially only to last for two years, and Tom is willing to tough it out even as he feels emasculated preparing sandwiches at a dive for half the money he was making on the West Coast. When her tenure is extended, however, trouble begins and silent resentment takes over. Even as Violet's sister Suzie (Alison Brie) marries Tom's uninhibited friend and co-worker Alex (Chris Pratt) and the two of them have a baby girl, and then a baby boy, Violet and Tom are left in the dust, unable to find the right time to say their "I do's" amidst all the other changes and pressures around them. With grandparents dropping like flies and their folks growing increasingly antsy, might their relationship simply not be meant for forever?
"The Five-Year Engagement" was produced by Judd Apatow, he of several unnecessarily epic-lengthed studio comedies (i.e., 2007's "Knocked Up" and 2009's "Funny People"), but like 2011's instantaneous classic "Bridesmaids" this one has enough going for it that it doesn't feel particularly drug out. With the possible exception of about ten minutes that might have been excised during the middle section where a fed-up, emotionally unstable Tom grows out a beard and flirts with becoming a mountain man, the 124-minute running time zips by at a natural, chirpy clip. The opening scenes, segueing between Tom's nervous proposal to Violet and a flashback to their fateful meeting, culminating in the playing of their song, Van Morrison's "Sweet Thing," is incandescent. Charismatic young adults with winning personalities and an even more irresistible connection to one another, Tom and Violet are the type of people the viewer immediately wants to see ride off into the sunset. It helps, of course, that Nicholas Stoller and Jason Segel know their characters so well and grants them a plethora of shades, interests and eccentricities. Upon giving her the engagement ring, Tom establishes that he knows how 2006's "Blood Diamond" disturbed her and reassures her that these jewels are from an older era. "One hundred years ago," he says, "diamond mining wasn't so brutal." From there, the laughs come often, the majority of them deriving from behavior and some really great dialogue. From Suzie's extreme attempts to keep it together during an engagement party speech, to the oddball sincerity of Alex's unexpected foreign-language serenade during his own nuptials, to the various amusing interplays between Tom and Violet and any number of the off-beat people they meet along the way, the film is never left wanting for humor.
All the same, if the story was played strictly for laughs, it would wear thin long before the end of the second hour. There is never a question whether or not Violet and Tom make an ideal pair, but is there a way for them to stay together while being able to respectively live up to their own professional goals? The struggle to maintain a balance between personal life, career, and the expectation of family one day; the customary hills and valleys that any romance faces; the societal pressures often placed on people who'd probably be a whole lot happier without them - the film deals in thoughtful universal subject matter, blessedly giving its characters individual ideas and viewpoints. When a falling-out occurs, it does not result in one person running away - well, not usually - but in actions that are understandable and discussions pointed toward trying to figure things out. After one such argument where Tom finally airs out his feelings about living in Michigan, he says he needs to be alone. Violet starts to get up from the bed. "Where are you going? Come back here!" he says. What he means is he wants to be alone with his thoughts with her right next to him. It's a humorous moment, but also a touching one for ringing so true. Stoller and Segel know precisely what it's like to be helplessly in love, even amidst disappointment.
Jason Segel (2012's "Jeff, Who Lives at Home") and Emily Blunt (2012's "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen") are lovely as Tom and Violet, a match the genre usually can only dream of. Playing off each other with easygoing affection and a game willingness for anything, Segel and Blunt establish their relationship in a matter of seconds, ensuring it's authentic and endearing. They want to be there to support each other without ulterior motive, and it's only in Violet sensing Tom's unhappiness and wanting to find a way to fix it that communication begins. This is a far cry from most movies where the characters are so self-absorbed all they can think about is themselves. It's a welcome change. Alison Brie (2011's "Scream 4") ably steals several scenes as Violet's sister Suzie, her hilariously melodramatic engagement party speech nearly as priceless as Kristen Wiig's and Rose Byrne's passive-aggressive game of one-upmanship during a similar toast in "Bridesmaids." A late scene between Brie and Blunt is just as inspired, a serious life discussion played out in the voices of Elmo and Cookie Monster as Suzie's first delighted, then just confused little daughter looks on. As Tom's central confidante Alex, Chris Pratt (2011's "Take Me Home Tonight") is adept at playing goofy but reeling it in and caring about his friend at heart. Pratt's rendition of Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire," the lyrics altered to match a slideshow of Tom's many, many past exes is another highlight. Other cast members of the ensemble worth noting: Lauren Weedman (2010's "Date Night"), pulling off what feels like expert improvisation as Tom's gruff but sympathetic boss Sally; Dakota Johnson (2010's "The Social Network"), getting just right the immaturity level of 22-year-old party girl Audrey whom Tom starts seeing during time apart from Violet; and Mindy Kaling (2011's "No Strings Attached"), Kevin Hart (2010's "Death at a Funeral") and Randall Park (2011's "Larry Crowne"), each one appealing in their own individual and self-deprecating way as Violet's psych colleagues.
"The Five-Year Engagement" does take its time allowing the journey Tom and Violet must go on to metamorphose and breathe, and this includes their ultimate split. Not really a spoiler since anyone familiar with romantic comedies knows there must be a break-up prior to some kind of reconciliation, the one here is intentionally protracted as it focuses on the mistakes each has made and the gradual knowledge that they've made them. By the time they come face-to-face once more—the circumstances of which will be left for viewers to discover on their own - it is well-earned. The ending, especially, finds a note of feel-good sweetness and pathos without the downfall of a sugar crash. The only debit: the oversight of a key decision that still leaves one aspect of their relationship up in the air. This might have been solved with only a line or two, but it doesn't put too heavy a weight on the otherwise splendid denouement. Lushly lensed by Javier Aguirresarobe (2011's "Fright Night") with some especially textured San Francisco scenery - also enjoyable was the use of one of the best romantic songs ever written, "Into the Mystic" - "The Five-Year Engagement" is a rare bird, not an R-rated comedy with an immature 15-year-old's mentality, but a grown-up, mainstream, studio-released comedy made for actual grown-ups. Imagine that.