Somewhere within the Nicholas Stoller directed film ‘The Five-Year Engagement’ there’s a really interesting and funny examination of modern relationships waiting to burst out. Occasionally you see it with some sharp dialogue, interesting character interaction, funny scenes and pointed observations. But alas, it’s suffocated by an average script and weak direction.
The plot centres on young San Francisco couple Tom, (Jason Segel, who also co-wrote the script with Stoller) who is a sous chef, and Violet, (Emily Blunt) who is a psychology graduate. They are deeply in love and Tom’s rather clumsy marriage proposal at the beginning of the film is gleefully accepted by Violet. But their relationship begins to hit the rocks when Violet gets into a post-doctorate university program which has them move to Michigan with Tom having to take a menial cooking job which he resents. As the strain on their relationship increases Violet’s charming professor Winton (Rhys Ifans) looms on the sidelines.
Probably TFYE’s greatest strength is the likability of the central characters Tom & Violet who are both portrayed and acted sympathetically. This ensures that even during its weaker sections a level of interest is retained.
And there are bright spots in the film – an argument in bed between Tom/Violet is truthfully and interestingly done. The gradual decaying of their relationship in the Michigan and increasingly desperate attempts to keep it alive feels reasonably genuine. And a late scene where two characters carry out a major conversation while doing voice impersonations of Elmo and the Cookie Monster is amusing.
But unfortunately these strengths are outnumbered by its weaknesses. A scene where Tom chases Winton through the streets at night goes on endlessly without any payoff. A scene where two periphery characters give toasts that involve putdowns of a colleague is pointless and could’ve easily been excised from the film. A supporting character who has a penchant for wearing awful jumpers he’s knitted is mildly amusing initially, but is turned into a tiresome running gag.
More significantly, there’s a silly segment where a demoralised Tom turns into a sub-Jeremiah Johnson hunter type, even donning a very rough beard. While it gets a couple of cheap laughs it’s impossible to believe that Violet would stay with him in this state and it undermines the attempts at truthfulness elsewhere in the film.
Also, the character of Winton is very lazily constructed. A professor who’s pretentious (yawn), arrogant and devious – it’s as if the writers wanted to create a character from the most negative clichés associated with academics (all that’s missing is for him to be smoking a pipe). It’s only due to the work of Ifans that the character has any interest whatsoever.
As an individual film, TFYE isn’t especially noteworthy. But it does gain interest in the broader context that it’s produced by Judd Apatow, a notable figure not only due to the amount of hits he’s been associated with in recent years but that his brand of comedy has become well-known and identifiable.
I don’t consider myself a fan of the Apatow-style films (I should add I don’t really consider the Will Ferrell films Apatow produced part of this sub-genre). They have their appealing aspects such as a fresh modern style of humour and usually likable characters. But TFYE is a good demonstration of the weaker characteristics – scenes last twice the length they should, very self-conscious low-brow humour, supposedly liberated on the topic of sex but in truth conformist and conservative, etc…
Despite all that, TFYE is not a turkey by any stretch. It’s a tolerable time-waster with some interesting and endearing aspects. I think it’s marginally better than last year’s hit Apatow-produced film ‘Bridesmaids’. But it could’ve – and should’ve – been better than it is.