Silver Screen: The Five-Year Engagement ***1/2
Multitalented comedian Jason Segel got his first big role on the Judd Apatow-produced TV cult-classic Freaks and Geeks. One of the show's trademarks was his character's ritual humiliation: During the course of the show Segel sang embarrassing ballads to a disinterested girl, strutted around in bikini briefs, flamboyantly lost a disco-dancing contest, and endured the world's most awkward audition. It's a trick perfectly suited to his persona, which is broad-- both physically and comedically-- yet earnest, and he's carried on the tradition in his own films, most famously in Forgetting Sarah Marshall when he delivered a heartfelt speech studded with lots of full frontal nudity.
Segel endures plenty of embarrassment in The Five-Year Engagement, which he cowrote with director Nicholas Stoller, his Sarah Marshall collaborator. This time around the showpiece is a weird, messy sex scene in a deli, followed by more hilarious weeping, tragedy, and, yep, nudity. Segel endures most of the slings and arrows in The Five-Year Engagement costarring as Tom, a kindhearted chef engaged to plucky academic Violet (Emily Blunt). They're soon to be married when Violet learns of a career opportunity in Michigan, and he volunteers to put his career at a trendy California restaurant on hold for two years while they relocate to the less hospitable climate of the upper Midwest.
If you can read the title of the movie on your ticket stub, of course you know this plan doesn't work out too well. Violet gets wrapped up in a study with smarmy professor Winton (Rhys Ifans), and of course the Second Rule of Movies is that all professors who are not visibly decrepit will try to have sex with you. (First Rule of Movies: Land developers are always evil.) While Violet's career flourishes, Tom sinks into a weird domestic funk, making sandwiches at a deli and reinforcing his masculinity with a set of wispy muttonchops and an obsession with deer hunting with his oddball buddies (Chris Parnell and Brian Posehn). All the while, Tom and Violet's impending nuptials languish in relationship purgatory.
The real problem for The Five-Year Engagement is that the dramatic crux of the film is nothing happening. The central conflict is the unintended and continually protracted hiatus, and as Tom and Violet's relationship loses focus, so does the movie. At times this drifting pace is the film's biggest asset. Without the intrusion of big plot twists that mark movies but so rarely appear in our actual lives, Tom and Violet's relationship is able to evolve (and devolve) naturally. Their problems are of the recognizable variety that sound trivial alongside greater societal woes but feel monumental to those grinding through them.
On the other hand, as the tension between Tom and Violet simmers and he sinks deeper into depression, the movie starts to feel like a bit of a slog. And this being a romantic comedy, a big, memorable ending is in order, so all the verisimilitude the film generates during the long middle section is erased by a finale that could easily come from a 1990s Meg Ryan movie.
That's not to say that, for the most part, The Five-Year Engagement isn't enjoyable. Segel is a good writer and an excellent performer, and he'll always manage to find a few laughs in a scene. Costar Blunt is pretty funny herself, having stolen all the scenes in The Devil Wears Prada that didn't belong to Meryl Streep. Their chemistry isn't great-- Segel's best moments are with Parnell and Posehn, who stand out among a fantastic supporting cast that includes Alison Brie, Chris Pratt, Kevin Hart, David Paymer, Mimi Kennedy, and Mindy Kaling. It's all more overtly relatable than the entertainment-industry insiderism of Segel and Stoller's last collaboration, but never quite as resonant. Engaging, yes, but certainly more forgettable than Sarah Marshall.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter @bmillercomedy.