As a producer, Judd Apatow rarely triumphs. The American Jewish filmmaker finds funny ideas and the right people to make them work, but the strong moralism of the movies he directs himself—40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, especially—doesn't translate, usually resulting in off-color junk. The Five-Year Engagement, the latest from Apatow Productions, almost proves to be an exception. The new romantic comedy by director Nicholas Stoller not only plays for genuine laughs, but it also makes pertinent points about our culture's struggle with commitment, specifically in marriage. It gets things mostly right—and, of course, a few things wrong.
Written by Stoller and Jason Segel (who last co-wrote and starred in the wholesom The Muppets), the story details the five-year engagement of Violet Barnes (Emily Blunt) and Tom Solomon (Segel). They're clearly in love, but the problem—the prolonged engagement—turns out to be themselves. Before settling down, Violet wants to pursue a career in academia as a psychology professor, while Tom wants to be a successful chef. Their separate paths don't sync, leading to a difficult transition from San Francisco to Michigan, causing contempt and discontent. They put their marriage, and their relationship, on hold.
This plot alone doesn't stand out as smart or funny; it's mostly contrived and predictable and, at times, divergent. In the disconnected moments, like Tom growing a beard and becoming a deer hunter to deal with his unhappiness, Stoller doesn't trust his story, his characters, or his audience. Instead, he goes on random tangents, trying to sustain our interest. These deviations make the comedic style uneven—sometimes leaving its rom-com roots for a more ridiculous, idiosyncratic aesthetic in the vein of Napoleon Dynamite and Hot Rod. It also slows the pace and keeps the central narrative from moving forward, resulting in a longer movie than it should have been.
Thankfully, the characters transcend these missteps. From the opening sequence, the silly and sincere initial proposal, we immediately fall in love. Tom is a typical Segel persona—a kind, apathetic goofball … and hilarious. Segel has yet to wear out this typecast, continuing to draw laughs with sound comedic timing—particularly in his deadpan delivery. Then there's his awkward physical humor, including a scene where he fails miserably in chasing down Violet's insolent boss. Violet, played delightfully by Blunt, couldn't be more sharp and charming. In a performance perhaps too good for a film of this genre, Blunt uses her eyes so precisely to convince us of Violet's love for Tom, from mere reactions to his dumb remarks to moments of high drama. Together, she and Segel are a blend of energy and chemistry, inviting us to just hang out and watch them be sweet and funny.
A slew of other characters bring additional laughs, including Kevin Hart, Mindy Kaling, and Randall Park, who play Violet's geeky colleagues. Chris Pratt also stands out in the part of Alex, Tom's tactless best friend who knocks up Violet's sister, Suzie, played by Alison Brie (Mad Men, Community), the brightest of the supporting cast. In full-on British accent, her Suzie actually ventures from the proper schoolgirl character that Brie is known for, showing her range in a slyer, livelier role. In a hilarious scene where she and Blunt hash out an argument about commitment in Elmo and Cookie Monster voices, Brie confirms her comedic genius while making the film's moral undertones all the more effective.