with poll: Ann Arbor movie 'The Five Year Engagement' is lovable, despite its flaws
As the title implies, “The Five Year Engagement” focuses on a couple’s long, bumpy path to the altar.
Indeed, a proposal scene between Tom (Jason Segel) and Violet (Emily Blunt) opens the film—which was filmed primarily in Ann Arbor in 2011—and what follows is a bloated, sometimes funny and charming, sometimes flat exploration of what happens when grown-up realities and ambitions butt heads with romance.
Tom, a sous chef in San Francisco, is on the verge of being named head chef at a new restaurant when he proposes, and Violet receives an acceptance letter for a two-year graduate program in psychology at the University of Michigan. Believing he can be a chef anywhere, Tom supportively agrees to move to Ann Arbor with Violet and postpone their wedding. (Attempting a long-distance relationship is never even discussed, strangely, despite the seemingly finite nature of Violet’s stay in Ann Arbor.)
But when Tom starts looking for a job in Michigan restaurants, he’s laughed at—in a segment that’s too long for its own good—until he lands a job at Zingerman’s, where it quickly becomes clear that while Violet is getting closer to her dream, Tom is getting further and further away from his.
What’s appealing about “Engagement”’s premise is that it complicates the promise of unadulterated happiness that’s usually implied once the question is popped in a rom-com. For many people, readiness for marriage occurs at a time when a person is also still building a career, and the hard truth is that it’s rare that both parties in a relationship can have their “dream job” while residing in the exact same part of the world. “Engagement” reaps tension and laughs from this all-too-common conflict.
Yet this doesn’t, by itself, mean that the film innovatively breaks from the basic rom-com template (and its accompanying cliches). There are, inevitably, quirky minor characters with weird interests. Violet’s fellow grad students—and facets of academia in general—are drawn in reductive, broad strokes, and some sidelined comic firepower (Mindy Kaling, for instance) feels underutilized. Tom’s friends, meanwhile, include faculty husband Chris Parnell, a cartoonish cautionary figure who spends his time knitting sweaters; and co-worker Brian Posehn, a bizarrely eccentric pickle aficionado.
These last two play a larger role during a segment of the movie when Segel grows increasingly depressed, losing himself in giant sideburns, hunting, beekeeping and mead-making. (Locals may feel that Tom’s hobbies condescendingly suggest that Michigan residents are outdoorsy, off-the-grid flakes—depending on how sensitive one is to such suggestions.)
Segel and Blunt are generally likable and sympathetic, but stealing several scenes is Alison Brie, who plays Violet’s sister, Suzie. She makes the expected tearing-up-during-an-engagement-party-toast hilarious; and she also provides, with Blunt, what is arguably the movie’s funniest scene: a very adult conversation performed in the voices of Elmo and Cookie Monster.
The moment works because it collapses adulthood and childhood in a way that’s aligned with the movie’s themes. And when the movie succeeds, as it often does, it does so by way of such fresh approaches to an old genre (including the end, which has a breathless sense of fun about it).
But with a running time of more than 2 hours, “Engagement” feels over-long, thanks largely to some labored comedy bits. Director Nick Stoller could have made the film more polished, sharp, and funny by way of some liberal editing; yet just as happens in relationships, you’ll probably be able to fall for “Engagement,” despite seeing its flaws plainly.