I didn’t know much about The Five-Year Engagement other than it started Jason Segel as a man who was engaged for five years, following up the normal romantic comedy where, on a most extraordinary night, two star-crossed individuals finally meet the person of their dreams. It seemed funny, and I enjoy Segel on How I Met Your Mother, although I didn’t care for the gross-out attempts in Forgetting Sarah Marshall (he wrote and starred), Get Him to the Greek (he wrote and starred), or The Muppets (he wrote, and starred, and yes, go ahead and hate me). But I was in the mood for a movie, and with Judd Apatow, I figured there would be plenty to laugh at here (Knocked Up, Superbad, Forty Year Old Virgin). So, with that mixed bag of expectations, I found myself pleasantly surprised by a sometimes witty, usually funny, and awfully realistic portrayal of engagement.
Tom (Segel) and Vi (Emily Blunt) meet on New Year’s Eve in San Francisco, fall in love, get engaged… and then real life occurs. She doesn’t get the graduate package she wants from Berkeley but gets an offer from Michigan; he leaves his up-and-coming role as a chef to support her and be together. Parallel storylines find his best friend Alex (Chris Pratt) bedding Vi’s sister (Alison Brie) at the engagement party, impregnating her, and subsequently marrying her. The life that Tom and Vi said they wanted on New Year’s Eve went to someone else, and they live a five-year engagement that takes us through “typical” romantic comedy diversions and a few things that seem pretty realistic (although you can’t imagine them happening all at once to the same person).
Rhys Ifans shows up as the PhD adviser who we know is going to be trouble, and there’s a sometimes intelligent, sometimes what-in-the-world-are-they-talking-about theme where Tom and Vi’s relationship mimics a psychological experiment about an old box of donuts. The Michigan setting allows the film to branch out in terms of actors for sure: Kevin Hart does a turn as another PhD candidate, Brian Poehn plays a co-worker of Tom’s at the deli he’s forced to work at, and Chris Parnell plays a sweater-weaving, stay-at-home dad who is the worst nightmare of anyone who has been a stay-at-home dad. The film certainly strikes at some of the stereotypes of engagement, and other situations like these, and the end result is funny… and sad.
By midway through the movie, I was feeling pretty depressed. The film captures the fractures that can occur in a relationship just getting off the ground, or any relationship really. At one point, Tom and Vi are as far apart as you think they can get (he’s not talking, she’s not listening) and then the typical rom-com deals about kissing other people and near adultery fall into place. And when you figure this is going to be The Break-Up for 2012, things happen that you root for… and which seem pretty realistic based on the foundation you’ve been given for an hour and a half.
I laughed the loudest at a conversation between Vi and her sister where they were forced to take the voices of Cookie Monster and Elmo. Parenting takes you some crazy places, and so does love. What happens in the last bit will offend someone (but if you’re watching the movie and you make it that far without being offended… suck it up) but it should also make your heart swell (it did mine). There’s got to be a hope that we can recognize in another person that we aren’t perfect, neither are they, but thank God, we’ve found each other. It’s really a story for all of us, not just romantically. If we can recognize our 60% “rightness” for each other as a community, and stop focusing on the 40% “wrong,” maybe that whole “love will conquer all”/kingdom of God business isn’t as far away as we thought.
I sure can hope for that, can’t I?