The Five-Year Engagement is a romantic comedy that gets it. While staying firmly within the lines of etched-in-stone formula, Nicholas Stoller’s film, which he co-scripted with star Jason Segel, lightly tweaks the genre’s conventions, resulting in an offering that’s both intelligent about the way relationships function over time and genuinely funny—all while avoiding the gross-out set pieces that characterize such recent genre hits as Bridesmaids.
Not so much a contemporary take on the comedy of remarriage (c.f. Crazy, Stupid, Love) as a comedy of engagement, breakup, and first marriage, the film follows five turbulent years in the life and loves of Tom Solomon (Segel), an on-the-rise San Francisco chef, and Violet Barnes (Emily Blunt), a psychology Ph.D. hoping to do her post-doctorate work at Berkeley, but who ends up getting a gig at the University of Michigan instead. Quitting his job, Tom tags along to Ann Arbor to support his fiancée during her two-year stint as a research assistant to an eminent psychologist. Taking a job at a local deli and weathering the dull Michigan days, Tom finds his resentment start to build, and when Violet’s grant gets extended, two years turn into five, and both leads have romantic incidents with other partners, their relationship becomes sorely tested, eventually breaking off.
What’s so refreshing about Stoller’s film is that, unlike Crazy, Stupid, Love, in which the central couple’s split is essentially blamed on a midlife crisis by Julianne Moore’s character, The Five-Year Engagement understands the myriad stresses that define actual relationships: the tensions between career and romance, the fact that while selfishness often plays a part in in any human interaction, sometimes the success or failure of a coupling is due to circumstances not so easily reduced to a single motivating factor. That these qualms play out in a series of scenes often simultaneously emotionally complex and genuinely funny defines the film’s main achievement. Whether watching the couple negotiate their future in bed following an admission of partial infidelity on Violet’s part, or observing Tom in a series of foolish encounters involving threats of violence or sexual straying, Stoller’s movie rarely sacrifices intelligence for easy laughs, building the humor into the complexity of the situations. Aided by a rich supporting cast (Chris Parnell as a sweater-loving “faculty husband” and the various members of Violet’s research team are particular standouts), The Five-Year Engagement proves that neither gross-out gags nor pseudo-sophisticated Woody Allenisms are necessary to make a smart, funny comedy.
Still, like any ultimately formulaic rom-com, the film can’t quite escape the dictates of the genre, most notably during a long sequence in which the central pair split up, take obviously unsuitable partners, and the audience is left with the long wait for the couple to make their separate realizations that they belong together. These scenes are especially cursed by the near-caricatures that represent Tom and Violet’s temporary companions, especially Tom’s ditzy, 23-year-old girlfriend, Audrey (Dakota Johnson).
But even here the inevitable time-marking quality is granted surprising poignancy by the sense of lives moving on, people getting older (and in the case of Tom and Violet’s grandparents, dying rather frequently), and not getting any happier. It’s this sense of the passage of time (its centrality indicated by the film’s title) as well as the understanding that the characters actually have to learn something from their experiences in order to truly be worthy of each other, that makes their eventual reunion so satisfying. That, and the gleeful, heart-tugging set piece that brings the film to its glorious and appropriately brisk conclusion. Like most contemporary romantic comedies, The Five-Year Engagement aims to have us leaving the theater feeling good. Unlike the majority of its generic brethren, Stoller’s film actually does.