I don’t know whether to applaud The Five-Year Engagement (written by Nicholas Stoller and Jason Segel, directed by Stoller) for generating its comedy and drama — even the broad comedy — so skillfully out of the characters or whether to dismiss it for being so middle-of-the-road in its conclusions. I know that it is repeatedly retrograde in the jokes it makes at the expense of Asian Americans. (Too much Breakfast at Tiffany’s?)
Produced by Judd Apatow, the movie is firmly in his school. It will not feel out of place with 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up or previous Segel/Stoller collaboration Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Segel plays Tom, a chef who wants to marry his girlfriend of one year, Violet (Emily Blunt). In the opening scene of the movie, they get engaged. But life events keep getting in the way. The life events are real and (mostly) believable, and the reactions that the characters make are understandable. This should be expected in basic screenwriting, but for a romantic comedy, this is unusual. Nigh on a miracle.
There are other unique elements to the film. You would not expect a romantic comedy to have a strong theme of disfigurement, but a minor character chopping off a digit early in the film presages mishaps with hunting bows and frostbite to come. There is a real sense of peril in this comedic world, and I liked that. It didn’t buy the soggy ending, and I don’t approve of jokes that encourage bigotry, but I have to give respect to this aspect of the storytelling.
The acting is great. Segel and Blunt are both dripping with charm and you can’t help but root for them to get married (forgetting marriage is not going to solve all their problems). Supporting players are generally great, with Lauren Weedman, Chris Pratt and Rhys Ifans as my personal faves. Alison Brie, playing Violet’s sister, is unconvincing with her British accent, but gets a fantastic scene where she puts on an Elmo voice. It slays.
How does Segel’s performance here compare to Jeff Who Lives at Home? In Jeff, Segel played a superstitious naif, a character unlike anything I’ve seen in his other roles (except perhaps his doe-eyed Gary in The Muppets). Segel does not appear to be a classic movie star at first glance, but Engagement is making me think he might be the real deal. So what kind of movie star will he be known as 20 years from now? An actor who trades on an affable persona — like a Tom Hanks? Or will he be more chameleon-like — a Mike Myers? So long as he has collaborators like Stoller who can protect his persona, I think he’s on track to become the rare Hanksian leading man. But of course, there’s always the chance that life events will intervene. His awareness of that, as shown through the knowing script to this film, makes it seem more likely to me that he’ll stay on the trajectory.