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Non-Review Review: The Five-Year Engagement

The Five-Year Engagement is the best romantic comedy of 2012 so far. Reuniting the talents of Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller, the film manages to offer a refreshingly frank and honest perspective of romantic relationships. The interactions feel more organic, the third act crisis is rooted in something more primal and relevant than some idle miscommunication and the resolution isn’t based on the notion that people can inexplicably change. Like Segel and Stoller’s superb Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Five-Year Engagement is predicated on the assumption that love must mean accepting and embracing your partner for who they are, rather than what you want them to be. It’s a little depressing that this moral feels almost subversive in this day-and-age of formulaic and generic romantic comedies, but there’s no denying that The Five-Year Engagement is head-and-shoulders above most of its competitors.

They’ll get married this year… in a pig’s eye…

In fairness, a lot of the success of The Five-Year Engagement rests on its two leads. Segel tends to have an easy rapport with most of his leading ladies, casting and working opposite a bevy of talented actresses like Amy Adams or Mila Kunis. Emily Blunt is simply superb here, as she has been in virtually everything else she’s done. Her chemistry with Segel here feels as deft and natural as it did with Matt Damon in the sorely underrated The Adjustment Bureau last year. Arguably it’s Blunt who does most of the emotional heavy-lifting, as the most dynamic of the pair, and she’s wonderful.

The pair share scenes comfortably, and seem remarkably at ease with one another. The Five-Year Engagement actually begins where most romantic comedies end, so it’s crucial that the leads are able to create the impression of a dynamic and affectionate relationship from that first scene. Save flashbacks to the night they met, we join our two main characters a year into their relationship, with a proposal that inevitably (as the title implies) ends up postponed.

Well worth seeing, unless you’re otherwise engaged…

Blunt and Segel share the screen with wonderful ease, both able to craft multidimensional characters with conflicting emotions. That strong central relationship is pretty much the basis for the success of the film. The jokes come quick and fast, the romance is well-observed, and the supporting cast is solid, but it’s Segel and Blunt who carry the movie, and do so effortlessly. Early on, the mother of the bride makes a comment that love, unfortunately, isn’t quite a romantic comedy with Tom Hanks in the lead.

It’s funny, because I do kinda imaging Segel as a decidedly more juvenile and immature (and more frequently naked) version of the Hanks-ian romantic lead. He’s charming, endearing, affectionate and vulnerable, without being shallow. He’s relatable and engaging, but still has a discernible screen persona. In short, Segel has that rare “every-man”quality that you hear people talk about. I’d happily swap out every Chris Pine or Dane Cook for him.

Reaching a fork in the road…

The Five-Year Engagement does feel a tad more conventional that Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and I’m not quite sure if that’s a better or a worse thing. It has a clearer structure to it, a more logical progression, even if it lacks the same relatively unique character of that earlier film. It feels like The Five-Year Engagement adheres more rigidly to the genre conventions of the romantic comedy, but I suppose that’s only natural. While Peter was undoubtedly the main character of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and the film was from his perspective, The Five-Year Engagement feels more even-handed. The story is as much that of Violet as it is of Tom.

And so some of the structuring seems a little convenient. It’s notable that both characters seem to suffer the same hurdles to their relationship, presumably to illustrate that neither side is “right” or “wrong” – the difference is that Violet’s crisis point seems properly set up and developed, while Tom’s just comes out of almost nowhere in order to diffuse Violet’s. It might have been more interesting for the characters to accept that they have different issues to get past in their relationship, rather than adopting almost a tit-for-tat approach to relationship difficulties.

The date is of grave concern…

Without spoiling anything, even the ending seems somewhat truer to the romantic comedy formula than its predecessor. That isn’t to saw that the sequence isn’t effective or emotional, just to note that it seems a little “safer.” Still, though Segel’s script might stick a little closer to the structure of the conventional movie romantic comedy, the execution is still top-notch. The characters seem more realistic and complex than most romantic comedy leads, and that’s a testament to Segel’s script, as well as the two leading performances.

I would note that the supporting cast isn’t quite as strong here as that featured in Segel’s earlier screenplay, but that’s more due to the style of the film. Set in Hawaii, Segel was able to draw in any manner of eccentric supporting cast to assist in Peter’s journey in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Here, Violet and Tom are noticeably isolated, trapped in a more mundane form of reality. Their families feel more unique than most in these sorts of films, but Stoller seems to have wisely steered clear of any scenery-chewing supporting performers. Chris Pratt and Alison Brie make a solid supporting couple, and Rhys Ifans is great fun as a sleazy sociologist, but none of the background characters leap out in the same way they did in Stoller and Segel’s earlier collaboration.

Will their love turn cold?

But, I suppose, that’s the trade-off. Violet and Tom both seem more complex than Peter, Sarah or Rachel. Not that any of the leads in Forgetting Sarah Marshall were poorly drawn, but Tom and Violet feel more developed and grounded than those characters. So you feel more invested in Violet and Tom, even if the world around them doesn’t seem quite as exciting. Whether that’s better or worse will depend on the viewer.

I liked The Five-Year Engagement. I think that Forgetting Sarah Marshall can make a legitimate claim to being one of the best romantic comedies of the past half-decade, so that’s a very hard act to follow. The Five-Year Engagement isn’t quite that good, but it is the most entertaining and engaging romantic comedy I’ve seen this year.

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