Jason Segel and Emily Blunt find humor in heartache in 'The Five-Year Engagement'
In improvisational comedy workshops, there’s a two-person
game called “Get the Donut,” in which one performer plays a hungry customer
trying to buy a particular pastry and the other plays a bakery cashier who has
to think up obstacles and distractions to prevent the purchase. The same set-up
is used in Nicholas Stoller and Jason Segel’s screenplay for “The Five-Year
Engagement,” an often bittersweet romance about the pain of putting your dreams
on hold. How much you enjoy the movie will depend on your tolerance for the
escalating-frustration school of comedy, in which nice people with simple plans
end up stuck in a labyrinth of unforeseen complications.
“Engagement” opens, naturally enough, with a marriage proposal:
After a year of dating, Tom (Segel), an up-and-coming sous chef at a swanky San
Francisco eatery, has decided to pop the question to Violet (Emily Blunt), a
promising psychologist who’s awaiting word on where she’ll do her postdoctoral
research. Although the future looks bright, Violet won’t be wearing white
anytime soon after she gets the news that she’s landed a two-year position at
the University of Michigan.
In “Engagement,” San Francisco is for lovers, and Ann Arbor
is — well — the place where love goes to die, apparently. The Golden Gate sparkles
and shimmers, while the home of the Maize and Blue is generally shown covered
in snow and slush. Tom surrenders his job to his future brother-in-law (the
amusingly quirky Chris Pratt) to follow Violet, a decision that turns out to be
disastrous for his career and his self-esteem. Meanwhile, Violet blooms as she
conducts behavioral studies involving stale donuts and showings of “The
Notebook”; B.F. Skinner would be proud.
“Engagement” is another project from the Judd Apatow
production house, which signals slapstick, sentiment and sight gags, as well as
the occasional burst of black comedy and a tendency toward excess.
Although it may sometimes strain to deliver an extra laugh
or two (Brian Posehn’s foul-mouthed Zingerman’s Deli chef and some of the jokes
involving bodily harm don’t add much to the picture), the screenplay is reasonably
frank about the challenges of making a relationship work and the suppressed
martyrdom that can develop when one person makes sacrifices so his or her
partner can succeed. Tom’s deterioration — which includes over-zealous deer
hunting and sporting one of the most heinous beards ever seen — is funny, but
it’s also a bit painful to watch because Segel plays most of his character’s
conflicted emotions honestly.
Displaying a lightning-fast wit and dazzling comic
reactions, Blunt makes Violet luminous and thoroughly lovable. Since she first
caught the attention of audiences as Anne Hathaway’s rival for Meryl Streep’s
attention in “The Devil Wears Prada,” Blunt has quickly grown into a
fascinating, highly charismatic leading lady who manages to punch up every film
she’s in. She also knows how to bring down the house like a pro, as she
demonstrates in an utterly hilarious, weirdly touching scene between Violet and
her sister (Alison Brie) late in the film. It’s a moment that encapsulates the
best quality of “Engagement”: Its ability to make you laugh a lot and squirm a
little at the same time.