Romantic comedies, it has often been said, end just as the truly interesting drama of love — at least in real life — is beginning. What happens to two people who are meant to be together after they’ve found each other? That’s the searching, funny-sad question posed by The Five-Year Engagement, a lively, original, and scattershot-hilarious ramble of a Judd Apatow production. From the moment we meet them, there’s no doubt that Tom, played by Jason Segel (he of the empathetic smirk), and Violet, played by Emily Blunt (who gives off the most gorgeous British glow since Julie Christie), are very much in love. On top of that, they appreciate the good fortune that brought them together on a fateful New Year’s Eve. The two live in San Francisco, where he’s a sous-chef on the rise in a food-crazy town, and she’s an academic psychologist dreaming of a job at Berkeley.
Well, that’s one dream that isn’t meant to happen. Shortly after the two get engaged, Berkeley turns her down. Then an alternate offer arrives: a two-year research position at the University of Michigan. It’s Violet’s best shot at an academic career, so she feels she has to take it. And Tom, an enlightened post-feminist, fully supports the plan. Except that when the couple move to Michigan, it turns out that his job opportunities are less than zero. The best he can come up with is making scrumptious sandwiches at Zingerman’s, a beloved deli run by slacker foodies led by a self-declared ”pickle nerd” (Brian Posehn).
The Five-Year Engagement was directed by Nicholas Stoller, from a script he co-wrote with Segel, and like their earlier Apatow collaboration, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, the movie has a shaggy, unpredictable structure that works for it. It only pretends, in fact, to be about a couple who have to postpone their wedding plans, year after year. Yes, that’s the basic outline, but Tom and Violet, despite their up-in-the-air circumstances, could easily tie the knot. The real issue is that marriage wouldn’t begin to solve their problem — which is that Tom, his career in a dead zone, loses his purpose, his mojo, his joyful manhood. He keeps dreaming of the head-chef job he could have had at Clam Bar, a San Francisco hot spot that gave the gig to his doofus buddy Alex (the scene-stealing Chris Pratt, who’s like Jack Black in Seann William Scott’s body). Tom starts to hang with a fellow faculty husband (Chris Parnell), who takes him on hunting trips, and in between shooting at deer, he grows an ugly Midwestern beard in a style that might be described as Ted Nugent–meets–clinical depression. The more he sinks into his funk, the woollier and funnier the movie gets. The comedy even turns violent, with gory incidents involving a crossbow and a lost toe.
You have to accept a basic contrivance that’s built into the The Five-Year Engagement: In what is meant to be a thriving college town, couldn’t a chef with Tom’s skills find a cooking gig a little further up on the food chain? Couldn’t he at least try to open his own restaurant — as he says he dreams of doing? Since (full disclosure) I happen to be a native of Ann Arbor, the noted U of M college town where most of The Five-Year Engagement was shot, I may be a bit biased. But I couldn’t help but feel it’s a little strange that Tom and Violet’s new hometown, which they never once refer to by name (they just talk about living in ”Michigan,” as if it were some wintry hick wilderness), doesn’t appear to have so much as a single high-end restaurant. (I will vouch, however, for the film’s highly accurate portrayal of the tastiness of Zingerman’s.)
Yet once you go with its premise, the movie is an enjoyable grab bag of messy life circumstances. Tom and Violet drift, love, fight, disengage, do pillow-talk therapy — and that’s all before Tom goes off the deep end. Meanwhile, the movie, like so many Apatow productions, finds an antic redemption in the spirit of the group — Tom’s co-workers, and also Violet’s highly amusing team of postdoc psychology colleagues, who each have at least one screw loose. (That goes as well for her department head, a very smooth lech played with impeccable timing by Rhys Ifans.) The Five-Year Engagement isn’t a comedy about falling in love. It’s a comedy about falling from love, and grasping your way back to happily ever after. B+