Going to the movies is an expectations game. When you expect great things, like that blockbuster sequel or adaptation of your favorite novel, it is a recipe for disappointment.
By Noah Gittell
Going to the movies is an expectations game. When you expect great things, like that blockbuster sequel or adaptation of your favorite novel, it is a recipe for disappointment. When you randomly stop into your local theater and catch the foreign flick you have never heard of, it can be a memorable experience. I walked into “The Five-Year Engagement” with a very specific set of expectations. I assumed it would be a fun romantic comedy with some sophomoric humor thrown in for good measure. And why not? I was led on by a wacky trailer featuring the movie’s likable stars, Jason Segel and Emily Blunt, and producer Judd Apatow, who has had a hand in nearly every successful comedy of the last decade. But after a very long two hours and five minutes, I walked out of the dark theater, disappointed and depressed by a bitter tale of two likeable people who just cannot stop hurting each other.
Segel and Blunt play Tom and Violet, an up-and-coming chef and psychology student, who get engaged in the film’s warm and playful opening sequence. It’s hard not to like these two; they are young and in love, and it seems that the world is just beginning for them. But when Violet if offered a once-in-a-lifetime job opportunity at the University of Michigan, Tom generously puts his career on hold, and they pack up and move to Ann Arbor for two years. The wedding is on hold, as well, and so the extended engagement begins.
It is easy to guess what comes next. They are forced to extend their stay, and as two years turn into three, and three turn into five, tensions mount. Tom is unhappy working at a local sandwich shop, and his misery becomes a problem for both of them. Meanwhile, Emily’s innocent flirtation with her boss is threatening to turn into a full-fledged affair. If nothing about this set-up seems funny, well, it’s not. The writers tack a few chuckles onto the young lovers’ sad trajectory, but there are no comic set pieces or broadly likeable supporting characters to keep the story afloat. Instead, we get a series of miscommunications that lead to fights, and a good strong relationship becomes something toxic.
“Engagement” tries to follow in the footsteps of last year’s mega-hit “Bridesmaids,” which was able to mine a surprisingly dark plot for comedy. But “Bridesmaids” had two things going for it that this one doesn’t. First off, it was funny. The humiliations that Annie (Kristen Wiig) suffered were of the public sort – always a better route to comedy — and supporting character Melissa McCarthy stole the show as the ribald and bluntly honest Megan. There is no similar breakout character here. Further, Annie’s travails in “Bridesmaids” were funny because she was on her own, pitted against the world. We could get behind her and cheer her on, and rarely were we invited to laugh at her. But the characters in “Engagement” only make each other miserable, and in the end, we do not know whom to root for.
This is odd because we are used to rooting for Jason Segel. He has made a career out of playing earnest young men who are not quite ready for adulthood, so I can see why this movie seemed a good fit for him.
But in “Engagement,” his earnestness is a liability. When he goes to that dark place – for example, when he becomes obsessed with hunting to the point of serving venison at every meal and building furniture out of deer body parts – we go with him, and it is not such a fun place to be. Were this Vince Vaughn or Jonah Hill, we could step back and look on with ironic detachment. But Segel’s intrinsic earnestness does not give us the option of distance. For better or worse, we’re stuck with him – not above him, as we would be with some detachment – for these two hours.
So, before you make that kind of commitment, you need to know what you are getting yourself into. “The Five-Year Engagement” is a sad movie about love’s complications that does not come close to earning its happy ending. It is not a comedy; it only thinks it is.
My rating: Skip it altogether