We all know how instrumental Judd Apatow has been to the flurry of noughties R-rated comedy, but Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller have graduated from his school of gross-out humour and schmaltzy bromance with honours. The cast of Freaks and Geeks (in which Segel starred) seem to have bled into every corner of Hollywood comedy, but Five-Year Engagement marks a slightly evolved example of that influence. Apatow is still involved as producer, but this is a much more traditional rom-com than the likes of Knocked Up and its many, many peers.
First thing first: Jason Segel doesn’t get naked. His full-frontal reveal was arguably what got him noticed by the mainstream in the first place, but here he is reliant on his post-Muppets good will and Emily Blunt’s involvement to bring people to the cinema. We meet Violet and Tom on New Year’s Eve, a year after they met, and Tom stages a spectacularly botched proposal. This sequence sets us up for what’s to come; romance, sweet-natured romance and little bit of crushing realism. His proposal doesn’t go to plan, and neither will their nuptials.
Before they can even get through the engagement party, Violet’s sister Suzie (Alison Brie) is pregnant and set to marry Tom’s best man after an ill-judged one night stand. If that wasn’t enough, Violet is offered a once in a lifetime job opportunity in Michigan, and the couple agree to postpone the wedding while they make the temporary move away from San Francisco. The only problem is, while Violet’s career goes from strength to strength under the tutelage of a slimy Rhys Ifans, Tom’s flatlines, giving up a promising chef’s career for a thankless job at a sandwich shop.
These are very real problems for a relentlessly realistic romance, where tensions over differing levels of success and sacrifice bleed into the everyday life of a couple formerly enjoying the pleasures of a rose-tinted outlook. If this sounds like a bit of a downer, it often comes across as just that, with a lot of the comedy used to add life to bitter arguments rather than create a lighter mood. It’s a brave move for a film using it’s ‘from the makers of Bridesmaids’ banner with pride and, while paying off in terms of the believability of the central couple, may turn off a lot of viewers who were expecting a laugh-out-loud comedy.
It’s a rom-com told backwards, and Tom and Violet’s journey towards unhappiness (though it predictably turns around in the end) drags on in what often feels like real time. For some reason, despite continuous criticism, comedies made in this vein are always far too long, making the pivotal sweetness secured early on seem tired and unwelcome by the time the credits roll. I can’t speak for everyone, but an overlong film can make me forget how much I liked the rest of it, and there is definitely an ample amount of content here that could have been left in the cutting room.
But The Five-Year Engagement is a worthwhile addition to the Apatow canon, even if it’s just because of the depth and consideration behind its humour. While it may yet prove to be an unwise direction to take, it’s refreshing to see a modern romantic comedy focus more on the romance, and Segel and Blunt’s easy chemistry supports that decision. While not as funny as others films of its type, it offers a rare level of insight into the problems of modern relationships.