I have no idea if five years is too long a time to be engaged, but I do know that, at 124 minutes, The Five-Year Engagement is too long a film. It’s not so much that it’s bogged down by superfluous subplots or an overabundance of characters. It does, however, suffer from a lack of reasonable pacing. Many scenes feel unnecessarily extended; I have no way of knowing if any of the dialogue was actually improvised, but certain passages do come off that way, and perhaps the filmmakers were so intrigued by the flow of delivery that they let the cameras roll just a little longer than they should have. This has an unfortunate side effect on comedy, namely a reduction in the effectiveness of a joke. The longer you drag one out, the less funny it becomes. Far too many jokes in this movie are allowed to continue past their natural stopping point.
Having said all that, the film is a successful romantic comedy, helped in great part by the casting of Jason Segel (also the co-writer and one of the producers) and Emily Blunt. It’s such a cliché to dwell on the chemistry between actors (God knows I’m guilty of perpetuating it), but there’s no getting around the fact that Segel and Blunt are beautifully paired. It matters not that their characters’ actions are dictated by the romcom rulebook; the sooner you accept the fact that these kinds of movies have built-in conventions, the better off you’ll be. They are also at times quite funny, although I believe they would have been much funnier had director Nicholas Stoller and editors William Kerr and Peck Prior had a better sense of timing and rhythm. Even one extra beat can make a good scene ordinary or, in extreme cases, bad.
Segel and Blunt play Tom Solomon and Violet Barnes, who met at a New Year’s Eve party and got engaged exactly one year later. The proposal itself was slightly botched, but the love was clearly there. At the start, Tom is a sous chef at an upscale restaurant in San Francisco, and he’s on the short list of being promoted to head chef. On the same token, Violet is a psychology PhD graduate with a promising career ahead of her. When she accepts an offer to join the University of Michigan’s two-year post doctorate program, she becomes incredibly tense, not only because it would force her and Tom to postpone their nuptial arrangements, but also because moving to a different state would require Tom to quit his job. She doesn’t want Tom to become like her mother (Jacki Weaver), who without hesitation says at their engagement party that marriages are less like a Tom Hanks romantic comedy and more like Saving Private Ryan or Philadelphia.
Tom doesn’t seem worried initially. After all, it’s only for two years. And it’s not as if there won’t be a need for chefs in Michigan. Right? Not really; once they move, the only job he’s able to land is making sandwiches at a local deli. Violet, on the other hand, immediately settles into her new job, having successfully proposed a psychological study involving subjects in a room and a box of stale donuts. She catches the attention of her professor, the pompous Winton Childs (Rhys Ifans). Well before she does, we wonder if he accepted her idea for its potential in the psychological community or merely because he’s attracted to her. Honestly, how sound is her hypothesis that those who eat stale donuts rather than wait for fresh ones are more likely to have a low self esteem?
As the years pass and Violet’s tenure extends indefinitely, she becomes increasingly aware of Tom’s unhappiness, which manifests itself through his sudden passion for hunting, his unflattering mutton chops, his overall dismissal of his appearance, and the fact that he actually ate a stale donut. She suggests that they finally start planning for their wedding, which actually gets him out of his funk. But just when things get back on track, an event which I won’t reveal threatens to derail their relationship altogether. This paves the way for the film’s third act, which, like almost every joke, goes on longer than it needs to. I can’t help but wonder if there’s a nice little ninety-minute film hiding somewhere within this one.
Both Tom and Violet are surrounded by their own set of characters, who are each given far too much time to be quirky. Topping the list on Tom’s side is his vulgar and obnoxious best friend, Alex (Chris Pratt), who still lives in San Francisco and has become the head chef of the restaurant Tom used to work at. Topping the list on Violet’s side is her sister, Suzie (Alison Brie), who just happens to be Alex’s wife. In spite of some visual gags that really don’t belong in a movie like this – like when Tom’s former boss chops off the tip of her finger, unleashing a geyser of blood, or when Alex and Suzie’s three-year-old daughter shoots Violet in the leg with Tom’s crossbow – I have to admit that the film is somewhat redeemed by the ending, which was simply too charming for me to resist. Indeed, there are things to appreciate about The Five-Year Engagement. I just wish it had moved at a faster pace.
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