The most abused of all movie genres, romantic comedy nowadays gets a pass just by managing not to be contemptible. You have to blame the scripts in the main, but it's also curious how so many of its bankable stars fail the basic test of charm. Has anyone even liked Gerard Butler in a romantic comedy? Film critics, who see these "romcoms" (ugh) week in, week out, have learnt to approach them with caution: the best you can hope for is some freshness in the playing, a few laughs, and a pinch of real feeling.
By cheering coincidence, and without making a big deal about it, The Five-Year Engagement has all three of those ingredients. True, it's hampered by a bland giveaway title, but then it does start at the point most romantic comedies conclude. We first meet San Francisco sous chef Tom (Jason Segel) and his girlfriend Violet (Emily Blunt), a doctoral student in social psychology, on their way to a party. He's behaving rather oddly, and under her persistent questioning in the car he cracks, presenting her with the engagement ring he planned to give her in a lovely spot overlooking the Bay. She says yes, but insists that they go through with his sweet romantic hoo-ha anyway, even though they both know how it ends: the film is a bit like this, too.
So their troth is plighted, and all set fair. As the countdown to matrimony begins, however, circumstances conspire to delay them. Violet's sister Suzie (Alison Brie) jumps the gun by getting hitched to Tom's co-chef and best friend Alex (Chris Pratt), and they have a baby to boot. Then Violet wins a two-year research fellowship, not at the local university but in Ann Arbor, Michigan. A decision must be made, and Tom agrees to move, sacrificing the big promotion he was due as chef at the Clam Bar. What's interesting is that the script (by director Nicholas Stoller, reuniting with Muppets co-writer Segel) presents the couple's dilemma very honestly. Violet explains that her own mother had to move for her husband's job, and resented him ever after. She's determined they won't repeat that mistake: she doesn't want Tom to be a martyr and do it just to please her.
Tom isn't a martyr, but he does do it to please her – and he will eventually come to rue it. His disaffection is traced with a beadiness that's at once comic and deeply painful. Unable to get a top job as chef, he settles for the modest horizons of the local deli. He becomes a loyal partner to Violet, and pals up with an "academic husband" in chunky knits. His transformation into a suburban-backwoodsman is evinced in his learning to hunt, growing a beard, putting on weight and losing much of his self-esteem. In a very funny dinner scene he serves alarming hunks of deer to the visiting Suzie and Alex, and pours his home-brewed mead into hairy beakers that "look like Chewbacca's dick". (Producer Judd Apatow's trademark vulgarity is more sparingly used here, and the better for it). Violet meanwhile becomes a departmental star under the tutelage of her professor (Rhys Ifans), inventing a psychology experiment involving stale donuts that tests delayed gratification – which in turn becomes an extended metaphor of what's happening between her and Tom. Indeed, the film might have enjoyed the much better title of "The Donut Experiment" (they only had to ask me).
The film makes light of its two-hour length thanks to an exceptionally strong cast. The leads do outstanding work: Emily Blunt, who first came to notice as the brittle junior witch of The Devil Wears Prada, shows an entirely different side here, investing Violet with a warmth and humour that feel (as far as one can judge) quite spontaneous. She has a great laugh, too.
Jason Segel, who has already impressed this year in Jeff, Who Lives at Home, is Hollywood's favourite Mr Nice Guy at the moment, and you can see why. He projects just the right amount of decency as Tom, and, without becoming a wimp, shows how his accommodating nature subtly undermines him. Like Blunt, he has excellent timing, not just in their comic repartee but in serious moments of one-to-one confession: there's one late-night conversation that would be the envy of a good dramatist, let alone a comedy writer.
Around them satellite a number of fine smaller parts, including Alison Brie, better known as Trudy Campbell from Mad Men, nailing one of the best lines to her sister Violet: "This is your wedding – you only get a few of those!" Mimi Kennedy as Tom's mum gets a fantastic late scene in which she delivers some home truths to her son, his dad (David Paymer) capping it off with a charitable "Had to be said". I also enjoyed Brian Posehn as the deli's dedicated pickler and world's worst speechmaker.
The Five-Year Engagement sets its face against the old tropes of traditional romantic comedy and its foolish enshrinement of "perfection". It is altogether more humble, and more truthful, in charting the pitfalls of modern coupledom. To be selfish in the pursuit of ambition and fulfilment or to be a martyr in facilitating your partner's? Can one find a middle ground? In doing so the film also gets to grips with the difficult subject of self-worth, difficult for American movies, that is, which so often confuse it with self-entitlement. Feelings of wistfulness, of frustration and disappointment, underlie the comedy of this long engagement, and it's a mark of the nuanced script and performances that the outcome actually begins to matter to us.
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