‘The Five-Year Engagement’ Review
Y’know how popular comedies often get an “Extended Cut” on DVD? ‘The Five-Year Engagement‘ skipped a step and released its extended cut straight to theaters. It’s 124 minutes long, and at least 30 minutes too long. There’s a good movie in here, maybe even a great one. But it’s buried beneath an awful lot of shoulda-been-deleted scenes.
Tom (Jason Segel) and Violet (Emily Blunt) have been together for exactly one year when Tom proposes on New Year’s Eve in a sequence that is funny and awkward and tender and very charming. Next comes the engagement party, where we meet Tom and Violet’s families (including character actors Jacki Weaver and David Paymer, amongst others). There’s not even a hint of a plot at this point, but that’s fine; the focus remains squarely on the characters, and the characters are superb. ‘Community”s Alison Brie plays Violet’s emotionally fragile sister Suzie, and her toast as she fights back tears turns into an incredible comedic riff. It’s brilliant and hilarious. Best of all, it comes from a very real place.
Early scenes like that one make it clear that Segel, who co-wrote the film with his ‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall’ partner (and director) Nicholas Stoller, was trying to make a rom-com free of the genre’s typical contrivances. There’s no impossible meet cute (as the movie begins, the characters are already together, although they do flash back to their first encounter at a costume party). There’s no arbitrary plot device standing in their way. There’s just a lot of very smart observational comedy — closer to something like ‘Seinfeld’ than ‘You’ve Got Mail.’ People who like romance but hate romantic comedies will eat this stuff up.
Later, though, things fall apart — which is either brilliant structural symmetry with Tom and Violet’s relationship or a couple of talented filmmakers losing control of their tone and forgetting the old adage about how less is sometimes more. Violet gets offered a spot in the psychology department at the University of Michigan, so agreeable, supportive Tom agrees to to put the wedding and his career as a chef on hold to move with her to Ann Arbor. At first, the couple’s problems remain grounded and believable — Tom can’t find work and settles for a demeaning job at a sandwich shop, while Violet suffers from guilt over forcing her man to postpone his dreams for her. But after Violet’s stay in Michigan gets extended, and the couple’s wedding gets repeatedly postponed, Tom’s repressed frustration manifests itself in some very strange ways.
That’s when Segel grows a Motorhead beard, takes up bowhunting, and starts fermenting his own mead and serving it to people in glasses made out of deer hooves. Then Violet’s niece comes for a visit, gets her hands on Tom’s crossbow and shoots someone with it. Then Tom is wandering through the house in a ratty bunny costume. You keep waiting for this entire sequence to reveal itself as an elongated dream sequence. It never does. What began as an extremely un-movie-ish romantic comedy devolves into a completely manufactured farce.
Even during the film’s weakest moments, Segel and Blunt make a perfect onscreen couple. From their very first scene, they’re utterly adorable together. You like these characters and you want them to find their happy ending. It’s also nice to spend time with Brie’s Suzie and her man Alex (an amusingly demented Chris Pratt). But there are so many subplots and side characters and extraneous improvised comedy that it all becomes exhausting.
Maybe Stoller and Segel were blowing their story way out of proportion as a way to make the audience feel the weight of all the years between Tom and Violet. But they did so at the expense of the film’s pacing, tone, and honesty. There’s a lot to like about ‘The Five-Year Engagement.’ Maybe too much.
Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’