If the job was to simulate the real feelings of impatience and frustration that come along with hesitant couples dancing around marital consecration, then The Five Year Engagement succeeds. If the Judd Apatow-produced comedy was trying for anything else—like a relatable, quick-witted romp with likable characters and a sweet sensibility—then it fails miserably. In fact, miserable is a good word for everything after the opening forty minutes. Watching the usually affable Segal and the endlessly charming Blunt struggle through this endurance test is actively embarrassing. Of course, Segel has no one to blame but himself, as he helped write the script with director Nicholas Stoller, and spends too much of his time recycling his How I Met Your Mother schtick for an R-rated audience.
I enjoyed the duo’s first outing, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but I lost interest quickly in Stoller’s trying comedy slog Get Him to the Greek. Stoller and Segel rebounded with last Novemeber’s terrific The Muppets! but they prove here they may be better with felt and buttons than living, breathing people. Violet and Tom are supposed to be your average couple, and the opening scene gives them a cute, silly engagement story that will be delightful if they get married, and simply prophetic if they don’t. Of course, the film’s big—and only—punchline is that they never get to the wedding. Violet’s acceptance to the University of Michigan sees them postpone the event and leave San Francisco. She’s off fraternizing with snobbish sociology majors and foolishly admiring Rhys Ifans’ skeevy professor, who might as well be wearing a sign that says ‘I will bang you.’ Meanwhile, Tom is smarting over his frosty new environment and the fact he left a promising chef career behind. In a dippier bit of plotting, we are expected to swallow the idea that Michigan is so backward and unrefined that a guy with successful culinary credentials couldn’t do better than a gig pimping pickles at a local deli.
Resentment sets in early, but then the film starts drifting through a series of increasingly inane gags that are never as funny as they think they are. Since we spend precious little time with Violet and Tom in the positive throes of their courtship, we never have a basis to believe they are soulmates trying to survive the hurricane of life. In fact, all of their troubles are of their own design and Segel and Blunt aren’t capable of playing brain-dead (even as a stoner Segel avoided outright cluelessness) so we have a hard time believing that they would make any of the choices they make here. There are three potential partners for infidelity, and the film utilizes them exactly as you would expect, although there’s never a suggestion that Violet or Tom would be so foolish or willfully stupid as to entertain any of them. By the time we arrive at a late-night drunken orgy involving lunchmeat, potato salad and Segel’s unfortunately bare backside, I was convinced the entire cast had been replaced by bodysnatchers.
That’s essentially the biggest problem with Engagement, it assembles a good cast that excel at being endearing and smart, and then run them through a moronic, contrived hamster wheel of a plot. Ifans seems always about to sneer at the camera and exclaim ‘You must be joking!’ Jackie Weaver as the bride-to-never-be’s mother is honestly hilarious, but she’s given so little to do that it makes no sense why she was even cast. Alison Brie is delightful as Blunt’s sister, and she’s got a terrifically funny bit where she expresses her sibling frustrations in the frazzled voice of Sesame Street’s Elmo. By that time all good will has been squandered and the most she gets is a faint smile. Segel and Blunt get hit the hardest because they are at the forefront of every disingenuous scene or ill-concieved gag. They also never elicit the proper chemistry to make us care about what they do, or if their love can survive the creaking gears of the screenplay.
The movie goes so profoundly off the rails after the first hour that it’s hard to believe its not some sort of meta-experiment where the same actors are performing a brand new screenplay. The early going is tolerable, as Apatow and his proteges attempt to channel old 80’s comedies like Funny Farm or The Money Pit, but they miss the necessary component of wit that existed under the surface of those outwardly silly flicks. They think they are smarter than their predecessors and shoot for an about-face where time moves forward, and we see Violet and Tom leaving separate lives that exclude each other. They don’t count on the fact that the audience simply doesn’t care anymore.
Segel was last seen in the 80 minute indie-gem Jeff Who Lives at Home, that in its own way explored the tyranny of film cliches and the danger of indecision as a lifestyle. Five Year Engagement doesn’t achieve any of that in its own two-hour plus running time. It does however, find time for nearly all of Van Morrison’s discography and over a dozen references to Segel’s genitals. It’s an extra embarassment that anyone thought a single frame of this was worth being set to Into the Mystic.