While I have long detested the employment of the phrase “wait for HBO” among critics–as a staunch defender of the theatrical experience, I believe most films are either good enough to warrant a night out or aren’t worth seeing, period–“The Five-Year Engagement” so perfectly fits the cliché that I may have to break with tradition just this once. Here is a film that is rarely compelling, but is usually diverting; you’d be upset if you made a date of it, but perfectly satiated if you watched it for free from your couch.
For the most part, “The Five-Year Engagement” coasts on the likability of its leads, but boy, are Jason Segel and Emily Blunt ever likable. Together and apart, they extol the kind of effortless charisma that makes movie stars, but with none of the usual pretentiousness. You want to spend time with them — he’s a lovable goof; she seems as approachable as she is beautiful. Often, Hollywood icons become the product of audience adoration, but instances in which the viewer wants to be friends with an actor rather than actually become said actor–as is the case with Segel and Blunt–are more indicative of a special presence.
That said, for as magnetic as the central duo are in their roles, they don’t deliver especially complex performances, largely because the cookie-cutter script doesn’t allow them to. It’s textbook rom-com fare — Segel’s Tom and Blunt’s Violet become engaged, but life gets in the way of their impending marriage. Her post-doctoral work sends them from San Francisco to Ann Arbor, Mich., causing him to lose his promising career as a chef and therefore resent her. Strife ensues, but we know that by the end, everything will be all right and Tom and Violet will end up married after all.
Being that this is a Judd Apatow production, written by the team that brought you “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” (Segel and director Nicholas Stoller), the cliché narrative is spiced up with a significant number of gross-out gags, some of which are reasonably funny. But without the expert understanding of humanity of a film like “Knocked Up,” “The Five-Year Engagement”’s use of crude humor seems more like a ploy to sell tickets to guys for what is otherwise a chick-flick than an authentic way to voice adult insecurities.
There is one truly inspired passage of comedic writing, in which Segel’s Tom, desperate to find self-meaning in the icy Midwestern winter, grows a pair of mutton-chops and develops an obsession with deer-hunting. For twenty minutes, “The Five-Year Engagement” becomes downright surrealist, with Tom’s personal crisis (intentionally) taking a radically different tone from the rest of the picture. In fact, the passage indirectly recalls the bittersweet comedies of the 1970s and ‘80s that undoubtedly inspired the Apatow gang — a fleeting bit of genius in an otherwise conventional work.
Even with the stock rom-com premise, Segel and Stoller could have made a more distinctive film had they better utilized their talented supporting cast. Chris Pratt, so funny on TV’s “Parks and Recreation,” was seemingly recruited to play a more generic variant of his character from that show. Comedian Kevin Hart shows up to talk about masturbation. Alison Brie and “Animal Kingdom” Oscar-nominee Jacki Weaver both don British accents to play Blunt’s sister and mother, respectively, but they too are given very little to work with. Brie gets one funny exchange with Blunt, in which they carry out an adult conversation in Sesame Street voices at the request of her children, but beyond that, it’s slim pickings.
The fact that “The Five-Year Engagement” includes so many likable actors, but gives them so little to do could make for a damning piece of criticism. But when so many of its competitors are filled with bad actors doing equally little, it seems silly to complain about the film’s wasted potential. As I advised earlier, you should wait for “The Five-Year Engagement” to hit cable, when you won’t be concerned about wasting time and money — that way, you will be able to focus on the positive traits of the movie rather than its substantial shortcomings.