By now a Judd Apatow comedy comes with a certain condemnation: they are far too long. That isn’t to say that his films, and the numerous ones he produces, aren’t funny. That’s a knock on the narrative and how it can get long in the tooth, especially in the middle as an important storyline transition is made. I prefaced this review to note that because it applies far too easily to The Five-Year Engagement. This is the second feature film to be directed by Nicholas Stoller and star Jason Segel, who both broke onto the film scene with their hit Forgetting Sarah Marshall, another Apatow production that suffered none of this film’s issues. Their follow-up collaboration is definitely funny but like the constant Apatow knock I mentioned above, it languishes in the middle.
Tom Solomon (Jason Segel) and Violet Barnes (Emily Blunt) have been together for a year and Tom is ready to move to the next step. While Violet is seeking a job in academia, Tom is living it up as a head chef in a posh restaurant in San Francisco. When Tom proposes to Violet, everything seems right on schedule. Then Violet gets a dream job offer at the University of Michigan, so Tom and her pack up and head north, postponing the wedding. Again. And again. Through terrific blunders on both of their parts, the couple starts to drift and only Tom being brought to his senses can save their relationship before it is too late.
The time when everything isn’t right with Tom and Violet is where the film starts to drag. Things don’t go well for Tom in Michigan, as he ends up working at a beloved sandwich shop. Eventually Tom becomes a mountain man with one of the worst beards ever seen on screen, and his increasingly erratic life choices cause a rift between Violet and him. One fight in bed about the decision to move out to Michigan shows real truth in writing with how their sarcastic nature can cause them to continually bicker like children. You may have your own parallels but I know a couple just like this and see them bicker often. When Violet begs Tom to open up, he lets out a well of emotion that is confusing and leaves them unsure of where they stand.
Throughout their journey they meet a varied cast of scene stealers reminiscent of Sarah Marshall. Violet’s sister Suzie (Alison Brie doing her best Emily Blunt accent) and Tom’s best friend Alex (Chris Pratt) end up getting married and their relationship is in direct contrast to Violet and Tom’s. Where Alex and Suzie end up quickly having two kids and getting married, Violet and Tom are continually putting off their wedding to let things settle down and it becomes a drawn out process. A recurring gag is how little time the various grandparents have to live before Tom and Violet get married, and as the name of the film implies, it isn’t a quick transition.
When the couple are together and happy, the charm and chemistry between Blunt and Segel is perfect. There is a happiness and zaniness that is sheer pleasure. But as they bicker the secondary characters come in to rescue large portions of the film. That isn’t to say that Segel and Blunt don’t provide laughs. Blunt, in particular, shows off skills I never knew she had when she gets into a fight with Suzie in front of her kids and they decide to continue to give vague references to each other by voicing characters from Sesame Street. While Brie’s Elmo is hilarious, Blunt’s Cookie Monster is the true home run. One has to think that Segel, with his love of the Muppets and puppets, had some influence but it seems like Blunt and Brie aren’t lip syncing either. Another pleasant surprise is Audrey (Dakota Johnson), a dim-witted hostess at the restaurant that Tom works at early. She channels a 20-year-old’s manic energy and gives us the second most despicable character in the film.
The Five-Year Engagement has some genuinely great comedic moments. The theater was often laughing so hard that the next joke was cut in half. Sometimes it didn’t matter, but like a lot of these films the setup is part of the humor. At other times it is the situations that the characters find themselves in that are keys to the comedy. A comedy as freewheeling at this is going to have a lot of excess material. Sure, some of it might still be funny, but it takes judicious cuts to keep things from sagging in the middle. If Stoller could have sacrificed some of the laughs for a tighter narrative, the laughs would be that much more potent and the 124 minute runtime would have flown by. When Five-Year is rolling it is great. Blunt and Segel give you a couple you can laugh with, at, and root for. Despite the fat around the meat, this is one comedy worth sinking your teeth into.