Friday, April 27, 2012

The Five-Year Engagement

Review by Pamela Zoslov

There's a segment in THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT, the new comedy from the Judd Apatow production company, in which Jason Segel, as an affable chef named Tom, takes up deer hunting and lets his hair and beard grow long and grizzly. It's a useful metaphor for the movie, which is funny but undisciplined, with a lot of weedy growth crowding its good qualities. Like Tom, the movie desperately needs a shave and haircut (in other words, a good editor).

That said, the appearance of a new Apatow production is always of interest to me. The movies directed by Apatow, a comic genius I have loved since The Larry Sanders Show, and his creative acolytes are messy masterpieces of fast, funny dialogue (KNOCKED UP) and relationships portrayed with a humanity that shines through the raunchy dialogue. In most of the Apatow movies, the main relationships are between guys and their buddies; their exasperated wives and girlfriends stand on the sidelines, insisting that they grow up, get married and act responsible.  

THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT has a more mature story, focusing less on buddy hijinks and more on the realistic challenges within a good relationship, between Tom and Violet (English actress Emily Blunt). Directed by Nicholas Stoller (GET HIM TO THE GREEK) and written by Stoller and Segel, the film also edges into more melancholic territory. The portrait of a couple whose wedding is postponed repeatedly because of career demands marks the passage of time with death. It could be called Four Funerals and a Wedding.

The screenplay is very uneven, with a lot of comic incidents and characters that don't work, and some that do. Where it does succeed is in portraying a genuinely compatible, affectionate couple and what happens when they try to accommodate each other's needs.

The movie opens with Tom's comically clumsy romantic proposal atop the San Francisco restaurant where he is a sous chef, and the couple's excited wedding preparations, which get sidetracked by an unexpected pregnancy (not Violet's) and Violet's acceptance into a postdoctoral program at the University of Michigan.

Though he is a rising culinary star, Tom puts his ambitions aside to join Violet in Ann Arbor, whose snowy streets underscore the bleakness of his future. Tom can't find a suitable chef job and ends up making sandwiches at a deli alongside a big, strange guy named Tarquin (Brian Posehn, a specialist in such characters). Violet joins a cast of other students led by social psychology professor Winton Chiles (Rhys Ifans), conducting experiments that involve trying to divine things about people based on whether they choose to eat some stale donuts. (Folks, this is why I gave up studying psychology.)

Becoming a psychologist, we are told, is Violet's lifelong dream – on the wall of her childhood bedroom, alongside her old Wham! posters, hangs a framed photograph of Sigmund Freud. Tom, gentle and patient, wants to support her in her ambitions. But while her career takes off, he is adrift in the Midwest. He starts crossbow hunting and adopts the aforementioned Grizzly Adams look (does the movie have Michigan confused with Montana?). Tom and Violet contend with Tom's growing depression and their families' constant pressure to reschedule their wedding before there's another death in the family. Before things are resolved, the movie takes many side roads, many of them leading nowhere. There is also some wildly improbable physical mayhem – a ghastly crossbow injury, a food-smeared sex tryst, a morbid frostbite incident. You keep wanting to tell the filmmakers: “You don't need to do this.”

The movie's scattershot approach yields hits and misses, as well as some genuinely surreal moments (Violet and her sister having a conversation in the voices of Elmo and Cookie Monster). Where the movie succeeds is in its winning lead cast. Segel is an increasingly endearing leading man, the more so for not being very handsome, and Blunt is an elegant, sincere actress equally adroit with drama and comedy. They make a likable and believable couple whose relationship you want to root for. 3 and a half out of 4 stars.

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