Nicholas Stoller’s 2012 seriocomedy The Five-Year Engagement sounds like an epic endeavor because well, it is, what with the two-hour plus run time and endless pursuits. I suppose there is some necessity in such an undertaking, the attempt to chronicle the mating habits of modern twenty-somethings destined for greatness or maybe just top chef and chief research analyst is enough these days for happy-after-all matrimony. Unfortunately we never really seem to find the people in the purpose and meaning of so much meandering. If the film was meant as some instructional documentary slated for classroom conversations or textbook analysis on happy-after-all matrimony, at least it there would be a payoff in the form of a letter grade or pass/fail check marks for one of those classes you have to take in order to take the classes you really want to take. Mostly it’s a lot of walking and talking, people of a certain age mired down in everyday dilemmas that bluntly put, are just too damn ordinary to be engaging, let alone entertaining. Sometimes we laugh because we find familiar, for seconds at a time the absurdity in that next door neighbor proximity is funny, but too close to friends and family leaves one feeling like yelling, “stop being weenies”.
This lengthy take on male emotional maturity reunites the writer/director and star of Forgetting Sarah Marshall for what amounts to another run-on romp down the long aisle of modern cohabitation. The film sputters in war-torn American idealism, the battered and bruised traditionalists locked in hand to hand combat with the modernists over the sanctity of life, love and the pursuit of marriage. Fans of the Apatow universe (Knocked Up, The 40-Year-Old Virgin) will be well prepared for this kind of plodding, the sort of non-date couple’s movie that attempts to cater to budding romantics while insisting on icky-poo man-child tantrums and sticky car seats, sofa-cushion non-committal relationship-building that kills bedroom encounters for the sake of a few laughs. The result is charming and funny in that heavy-handed way, the me-first feeling leaving the viewer wishing it were shorter and funnier, not so damned close to reality, and perhaps less of a resolute ribbon on the prototypical Hollywood ending but to be honest, even as much as we resist it we’d hate to see this film end any other way.
The setup of the film is standard romantic comedy faire, the careful introduction of characters teetering on the precipe of change or staying the same forever, the long road of together-and-apart to follow, and the obligatory obstacles that once thrown into the way of the plot become the only driving force propelling us to an unavoidable conclusion. It’s not that we see the end coming that’s problematic or that for all the character building what we’re left with are two people who if we knew them, if they were in our own outer dimensional ring of friends we’d hardly find them compelling or all that interesting. Films that force into the same square shapes in order to comment on our circles of life experiences, jamming triangles where rectangles should be, make us uneasy and that’s neither exalted or particularly fulfilled. It’s like watching a 3D Scorsese picture that’s great and wins awards but it’s not the Mean Streets we were hoping, or sitting through everything Tarantino flick he’s done since Jackie Brown wondering where the writer went, replaced by a bumbling serial killer violently murdering watchable. In a film that’s supposed to be about the transcendental divide between the heaven of individuality and the hell of togetherness, if aiming for OK in the end after five years of ‘we-should-have-thought-of-that’, it’s not enough to send us back to our cars full of everyday malaise or to the refrigerator for a ham sandwich before bed time for bongo. That’s precisely the trouble with this film and all films of a similar nature for that matter, the overwhelming propensity for averaging out, for run-of-the-mill ordinary when what we really need is another film from Nora Ephron or an 80s movie from Rob Reiner.
The Five-Year Engagement was co-written by director Nicholas Stoller and star Jason Segel, the fact of which is a double-edged sword, allowing for seamless emotional transitions while getting bogged down in every good take, every perfect smirk. Segel seems to get away with far more than he should which accounts for writer/director/star in the same room all the time. It wears on intimacy, which works when it works and fails catastrophically when it doesn’t. This film would still be too long even if it were funnier or more poignant, too long if the setups of supporting characters were more concise and less exposition and mirror bending. The film is also entirely too preachy of the woes and wails of dysfunctional man-children, the thin soup in disguise of all Apatow productions, their insistence on men in diapers as the starting point and detour for all men of a certain age who whether their adolescence and come back around, eventually. The benefits of this sort of arrangement are not absent, just more difficult to find. The ease with which the star and director have a short hand is perhaps most successful in creating emotional buoyancy that’s necessary for readiness, the connectedness that, had it been absent, would have spelled certain disaster in the way Date Night made Carell a coffin of believable and Failure To Launch nearly ruined Mcconaughey because it felt like some perverse emotional porno with people who never took off their clothes. The fact that this film works at all is commendable, the trudging down sentimental lane, the frozen snow drifts setting the perfect stage for infidelity before it counts and sexual dysfunction that hurts and makes you laugh at the same time. In the end of ends, not the actual ending two-hours later, the stumbles are too many and the payoffs too few, the characters an awful lot like people we know and that’s very often too close to home even for humble pie.
Many reviews will resort to plot point analysis and that’s when you know they don’t really have anything to say. It’s not that folks aren’t interested in knowing what they should never know before watching a film, that there isn’t stuff to be mined from such short order decency, but you don’t need to know how the characters arrive or depart the ordinary world only that they do. So going into this movie with that knowledge that you never quite leave Elm street should be all you need to know to skip this one for some other Emily Blunt film, just not The Adjustment Burea, because she shines even as everyone else around her dims by comparison, rooted in commonplace and shabby bib overalls.