Film Review: The Five-Year Engagement

A notch above the standard romantic comedy, 'The Five-Year Engagement' gets points for its realistic premise and consistent, if mild, laughs.

The Five-Year Engagement is the latest offspring of a new breed of romantic comedy attracting twenty- and thirtysomethings to theatres. Abandoning fairy-tale fantasies for candid snapshots of relationships in progress, these films are tackling the realities of a young, urban cohort. Writers Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller (who also directed) successfully rework the genre’s tried-and-true format—a whirlwind courtship ending in lifetime commitment—to appeal to young Americans who typically cohabitate before tying the knot, dating their way through years of ups and downs before deciding to settle in for good.

As in Going the Distance and Celeste and Jesse Forever, The Five-Year Engagement focuses on established couples whose careers and differing ambitions complicate their relationship’s future—and not in the clichéd “uptight career woman loosens up after meeting right man” kind of way. Shortly after their engagement, Tom (Segel) and Violet (Emily Blunt) hit a huge obstacle: Violet must move to Ann Arbor from San Francisco in order to pursue postdoctoral studies in psychology. “My mom gave up her career for my father and she never forgave him for it,” Violet tells Tom. For an instant, we’re not sure what will happen next—two possible outcomes float in the pause—then Violet clarifies: “I don’t want you to be my mom.”

So Tom, who was about to be promoted to head chef at a swank Bay Area restaurant, gives up his job and moves to snowy Michigan, where he finds a job at a deli—but at least one that takes its dill-speckled potato salad and artisanal pickles seriously. While he plans the wedding (their second attempt at venue-booking), Violet thrives at the university. But that wedding, along with a third, are called off for various reasons. Tom works off his depression by taking up hunting with gusto, culminating in a family dinner with deerskin mugs, venison everything, and an accident with a crossbow.

As Tom and Violet muddle their way through their long engagement, her sister, Suzie (Alison Brie of “Mad Men”), and Tom’s friend and co-worker (Chris Pratt) marry after an unplanned pregnancy and appear very much in love. Meanwhile, Tom and Violet still haven’t figured things out, and the audience is forced to watch Tom painfully go downhill for way too much of the film’s running time.

The Five-Year Engagement is full of silly and R-rated moments, but it tries to make us laugh by creating a kind of heightened, more creative reality, not venturing into the absurd. When Violet and her sister need to have a serious conversation in front of Suzie’s daughter, they speak in the voices of Elmo and Cookie Monster, one of the comedy’s most creative and hilarious moments. Violet’s rather goofy psychology experiment about people’s self-control around stale donuts (a riff on the famous Stanford marshmallow experiment) turns into the film’s primary thematic instrument, a shorthand for judging someone’s character.

The comedy is bolstered by the tremendously talented supporting cast. Brie and Pratt serve as the counterpoint and sounding board to Tom and Violet’s relationship, a contrast often played for laughs. The varying marriage philosophies of their parents—and the grandparents who drop like flies as their engagement gets postponed again and again—add generational perspectives and a tick-tock to the proceedings. Rhys Ifans excels as an adviser puffed up on his students’ adoration. Violet’s fellow postdocs, led by Mindy Kaling (“The Office”), bring up the level of banter. “I’m texting this to myself because I’m drunk and need to remember this,” Kaling’s character crows at an opportune moment.

Unlike the more audacious Bridesmaids, The Five-Year Engagement is solid, but not ground-breaking. It’s not the kind of film that paves the way, but rather one that follows in its wake, offering its own quiet contributions. That said, The Five-Year Engagement is dozen times more relatable and funny than The Ugly Truth and its ilk, and for that it should attract an appreciative audience.