Love is a many splintered thing

By James Sanford

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.