To Wed, or Not to Wed
By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
Filmmaker Nicholas Stoller’s “The Five-Year Engagement” humorously and sweetly reminds that of all the folly we foment in this human existence, few pursuits are more profound with sheer, dizzying, bedeviling joy than love and marriage. ‘Tis the masks of comedy and tragedy put into full play by no less a wily director than Mr. Cupid himself.
Accepting that premise, the engagement period is essentially the dress rehearsal, a time to tweak your lines, adjust your characters, delve their motivation, take a deep breath and hit your mark before the velvet curtain rises…gulp. For some, like Emily Blunt’s Violet Barnes and Jason Segel’s Tom Solomon, the process takes a bit longer than for others.
As the title alludes, Violet and Tom, who met at a New Year’s Eve costume party (he was Super Bunny, she Princess Diana) that becomes legend to their relationship, can’t quite get ready for the big show. Careers call, doubts filter forth and you know what often happens to the best laid plans of mice, men and the amiable lovers in our movie farces.
But that works out fine, at least for us. For we are all, in varying degrees, fans of this timeless sport, where it’s always contract time, the playoffs are near, one or more players is suffering an injury, and the clock is ticking. So, wielding popcorn bag and Diet Coke, we pack the rafters to see Tom and Violet, one minute the favorites, the next, underdogs.
Of course the appeal is decidedly vicarious, said pastime the very root of civilization. And, perhaps because it is a tad unsettling that this mystery known as love lies at the very foundation of our being, we have a rooting interest. Not just for Tom and Violet’s bliss, mind you, but in the hope that out of this sturm und drang will come a revelation for us.
That is, something we might put to pragmatic use, or at least opine about in our career as a romantic poet. But even if no great secrets of the eternal enigma are unveiled, it’s still comforting to be amongst the sights and sounds of that which so occupies our conscious and, per Dr. Freud, unconscious being. Rapture, and not just misery, loves company.
We like the pageant, nicely etched by a good cast inspired by a script that, while not innovative, is chock full of laugh-evoking insights realized with its own convivial slant. However, in orienting us to its sociological neighborhood, “The Five-Year Engagement” is beset with a two-edged sword: Skip stuff, or, ironically take up a bit too much time.
A snappier, more conventional pace would have required Mr. Stoller to lop a good thirty minutes from his film, and thus lose its unique humanity in the bargain. While there are standard jokes here, the bulk of the humor emanates from the situations established, the minutiae, the eccentric characters and the inside jokes to which we are made privy.
Miss Blunt and Mr. Segel exude that rare quality so essential to movie couples venturing the realm of romantic comedy: likeability. It transcends plot and situation, facilitating a cozy familiarity through which we can recognize our own dreams, foibles and anxieties while traversing along the path to that aforementioned, philosophical enlightenment.
Hence, it has to get serious, and even darn dim in moments if it’s going to tell us something of note about relationships. Naturally it all starts off swell. Giving is so easy in the beginning, when your mesmerization trumps all thoughts of self. But then the stardust must settle, and your id politely reminds that you had a life before you fell in love.
Such is the case when that long awaited fellowship to a doctoral program in psychology presents itself to Violet. She was hoping it would be at Berkeley, not far from the posh San Francisco restaurant where Tom is chief chef apparent. But nope, the opportunity is in cold, cold Michigan, where the chance of a haute cuisine gig is between slim and none.
But no matter. Pioneers in love, ebullient with a share and share alike mantra, they pull up stakes and embark. Expectedly, Violet blossoms like a hothouse flower, and is soon the favorite of department head Dr. Winton Childs (Rhys Ifans), fop, genius and, ahem, epicure of female pulchritude. Tom gets a job in a deli, grows a beard and learns to hunt.
Although Mr. Stoller doesn’t employ Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns,” it’s at this point in Violet and Tom’s affaire de coeur you could easily begin singing, “I thought that you’d want what I want, sorry my dear.” But hang in there. By reel’s end, via its seriocomic ups and downs, we gratifyingly understand their reason for “The Five-Year Engagement.”
“The Five-Year Engagement,” rated R, is a Universal Pictures release directed by Nicholas Stoller and stars Emily Blunt, Jason Segel and Rhys Ifans. Running time: 124 minutes