Lacking the focus and bite that gave Nicholas Stoller’s bad-break-up island-getaway comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall it’s notable power, his newest film, The Five-Year Engagement, starts strong, but gets softer and lousier the longer it goes on. It follows Tom (Jason Segel, also the co-writer) and Violet (Emily Blunt), who keep pushing back their wedding date whenever they encounter new obstacles. He’s a chef in San Francisco, but she gets a job offer at the University of Michigan. Why not take the job, move across the country and delay the wedding? The timing just doesn’t work out, but they love each other. They’re devoted and supportive. But why rush? They’ll be spending their whole lives together, after all. What’s another year? Or two? Or three?
As the story slips through events that take place over the course of what is eventually the five years of the title, it becomes a relatively lengthy, shapeless movie that meanders from scene to scene. At first it’s a rush of parties and preparations, but then time stretches out and seasons turn. Tom’s parents (great character actors Mimi Kennedy and David Paymer) and Violet’s parents (Jim Piddock and Jacki Weaver, so frightening in her Oscar-nominated role as the crime family matriarch in Animal Kingdom) would like to see them married sooner rather than later. The wedding is always on the horizon, but the distance to it never seems to shrink. Tom sees his goofy friend (Chris Pratt) receive the promotion he would have gotten had he remained in San Francisco. Violet sees her sister (Alison Brie) get married and have a baby.
But those happenings are more than half a country away from Ann Arbor, Michigan, a great city in its own right. It’s a charming college town that nonetheless provides wintry challenges to these Californians. And the people they meet are certainly friendly and challenging in ways related to their individual eccentricities. Violet’s boss (Rhys Ifans) and colleagues (Mindy Kaling, Kevin Hart, and Randall Park) and Tom’s newfound friends (including pothead sandwich maker Brian Posehn and stay-at-home dad Chris Parnell) are supportive, if eccentric. They know their way around local bars and hunting weekends respectively. The couple tries again and again to get wedding plans off the ground, but for one reason or another the date is pushed back again and again.
A wobbly mix of shapelessness and sharpness gives the movie its lackadaisical approach. The main problem here is the way it becomes clear that Tom and Violet have a pretty good relationship. I’m glad that the filmmakers at first steer clear of stupid movie-plot conflicts as ways to push back the wedding. It seems perfectly reasonable to avoid rushing into marriage, especially when Tom’s struggling to restart his chef ambitions in their new environs and Violet is trying to navigate the start of a promising career in academia. They love each other and, even if professional goals frustrate them at times, it doesn’t seem to effect their essential compatibility or their enjoyment of each other’s company, even when they argue. In the film’s most quietly funny and painfully accurate scene, Tom lashes out, complaining about his seemingly stagnant path in life, and finally says that he’d like some alone time. Violet gets up to go into the next room, but he calls after her. “Where are you going? I want to be alone here with you.”
What’s so unexpectedly sharp and recognizably humane about this film is the way it soberly approaches romance from a practical standpoint. This isn’t a swoony love-conquers-all Hollywood concoction. This is a movie that acknowledges in a serious, albeit in a mostly comedic context, the difficulties of blending two lives into one, especially when the people involved are struggling to get their lives as individuals started. It’s a movie about the futile pursuit of future perfection when the present is pretty good already.
By the movie’s back half, though, the sweetness and laid-back observation of this couple living their lives becomes just another romantic comedy. Contrived conflicts arise that divide the two, causing them to rethink their entire relationship. The plotting devolves into a distended version of the standard strained crisis before eventual reconciliation that can be found in so many romantic comedies, even some of the good ones. What’s particularly disappointing about this change is that the movie starts as a nicely unconventional look at romance, questioning a pressing need for matrimony when things seem to be so unsettled. The easy charm of the cast and the likable rapport of Segel and Blunt remain, but the supporting cast has been underdeveloped and the jokes have been a bit undercooked and so they just can’t carry the slow switch into formula. The whole thing starts to take on a feeling of an affable but lumbering episodic mess.