Friday, April 27, 2012
THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT is an Appointment Worth Keeping
- In weaker hands, The Five-Year Engagement could have been a very standard, very sappy sort of rom-com. But in the hands of director Nicholas Stoller, and a troupe of some of the funniest actors in showbiz, the movie proves to be an enjoyable and very funny romp. Rest assured, this isn't your parents' sweet and sappy love story - this is very much in the Judd Apatow-style of sweet-yet-raunchy comedy, with plenty of gross-out gags, dick jokes, and randomness in between the more serious scenes of romance. Indeed, Apatow is a producer on the film, and this is one that could sit pretty comfortably on the DVD shelf alongside the likes of Apatow's Knocked Up or Stoller's previous hit, Forgetting Sarah Marshall.
The story here is simple, but also pretty nuanced. There aren't a ton of crazy, out-of-left-field things that happen to the two leads - this is more of a movie about life happening. Early on in the film, we see flashbacks to the night when Jason Segel's Tom and Emily Blunt's Violet first met. It was a New Year's Eve costume party. She was Princess Diana, he was "Super-Bunny," and was wearing a ridiculously goofy bunny costume. It was just about love at first awkward dialogue exchange. Tom and Violet get engaged after a year of dating, and it seems like everything is going well for the young couple. Tom's a chef at a Bay Area restaurant, where he seems to be on the fast track towards a head-chef gig. Violet is applying for faculty positions in the Psych department of various universities. But just as the wedding approaches, life gets in the way. Violet gets a position at the University of Michigan, and Tom, eager to support her, semi-reluctantly decides to put his career on hold and move with her to Michigan. As the months and years go by, career and other life obstacles keep getting in the way of a wedding, and eventually, in the way of Tom and Violet's relationship. The question becomes: can these two work through all the challenges and stay together, or is the universe trying to tell them that it wasn't meant to be?
The first thing you should know about this film is that it's got a very loose, freewheeling structure. Stoller very liberally peppers the movie with comic asides, to the point where it's got a very sketch-comedy-esque feel and flow. This works well though, given the ensemble of comedy pros assembled for the film. Segel is at his best here, for one. He channels his nervous energy and gentle-giant charm so as to create one of his funniest big screen performances yet. Tom is one of the more average / normal guys that Segel has played, but it's all the little quirks that Segel adds that make him so entertaining. For example, the movie takes a semi-absurdist turn when Tom gets into a prolonged funk in Michigan. He falls in with some new friends and - overcompensating for not feeling manly enough - he transforms himself into a bearded mountain man with an affinity for hunting, beekeeping, and mead. Seeing Tom go down all these weird paths can get pretty hilarious, and again, it's the movie's willingness to go to some weird places that gets it so many laughs.
Blunt is super game here as well, and is a great match for Segel. They have a very real, natural chemistry, and Blunt gets in some very funny moments of her own. One of my favorite bits in the movie is an argument that Blunt has with Community's Alison Brie - who plays her sister - done all in Sesame Street voices for the amusement of Brie's young daughter. These are some funny women. Brie is a huge scene stealer throughout the movie, too - this won't be a surprise to fans of hers from Community, but her performance here convinced me that Brie is on her way towards being a huge breakout movie star in the near future. How many other actresses could pull off a pitch-perfect Elmo imitation and be this funny doing it? Brie is amazing.
And Brie isn't the only NBC sitcom star in the film. Chris Pratt of Parks and Recreation plays Tom's buddy Alex - a character not super dissimilar than his part on Parks, but hilarious nonetheless. Pratt is also a huge scene-stealer, and his eventual romantic pairing with Brie feels like a match made in comedy heaven. Actually, the whirlwind romance between the two sitcom stars is one of the best / funniest parts of the movie.
The rest of the cast is a who's-who of comedy. Mindy Kaling pops up as a fellow Psych professor. Chris Parnell is Tom's friend who introduces him to hunting. Brian Posehn is Tom's boss once he moves to Michigan, and Rhys Ifans is the sketchy Psych department head who proves to be a rival for Tom. Tom's father is played by the great David Paymer, while Violet's Dad is Jim Piddock from Best In Show. Kevin Hart is another one of Violet's Psych department colleagues, as is Randall Park, who is hilarious as the passive-aggressive Ming.
The movie wisely takes advantage of its wide-open structure to just let all these funny people play off of one another. Whether it's Segel riffing with Pratt or Paymer, Blunt and Brie having sisterly arguments, or the internal drama of the Psych department - there is A LOT going on in this movie, but in turn, there are a lot of sources of comedy. The converse of that is that the movie can feel a bit rambling and all-over-the-place at times - and a bit overstuffed. The movie has so many asides and tangents that sometimes it seems to have gone off the rails a bit. For that same reason, the laughs can certainly be hit-or-miss as well. There are some big belly-laughs and some standout supporting characters, but some of the side characters and subplots just feel extraneous.
My other complaint with the film is one that's typical of many Apatow-produced movies. The tone can be so all over the place that it's hard sometimes to get a read on what kind of movie, exactly, this wants to be. The movie goes to some pretty dark, edgy, and boundary-pushing places with its humor - which makes the super-happy/sappy ending just a bit jarring. By now, I'm used to that sort of Apatowian styles-clash, and again - the actors are so good that they manage to pull it off. Still, there's a throw-everything-and-the-kitchen-sink-at-the-viewer approach here that, I think, prevents the movie from reaching true greatness.
But hey, all those romantic comedy-isms, to me, go down much easier with a spoonful of absurdist humor, random riffing, and raunchiness. So on that level, I appreciate that Stoller and his co-writer Segel (also the writing team behind The Muppets) wanted to create a rom-com where the jokes are actually, you know, funny. And on that level, they succeed - it's a sweet movie that still has plenty of moments that will have just about anyone laughing - even those who gag at the name Norah Effron.
Overall, I really enjoyed this one - it's a terrific showcase for an all-star cast of comedy up-and-comers, and it proves to be an entertaining mix of funny and heartfelt - even though it isn't afraid to be raunchy, dark and/or messed-up when it needs to be.
My Grade: B+