Just the threat of a wedding seems enough to get romance-minded viewers hot and bothered, which means Universal’s “The Five-Year Engagement” — which sometimes feels more like “The 25-Year Engagement” — is going to be escorted up the aisle by big numbers. Swinging haplessly between poignancy and vulgarity, this overlong comedy reunites the “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” team of writer-star Jason Segel, writer-helmer Nicholas Stoller and producer Judd Apatow. But more importantly, it puts Emily Blunt in a wedding dress, which will appease the hopeless romantics in the house, even while making the institution of marriage seem ridiculously obsolete.
The film’s central crisis, such as it is, is the failure of Tom Solomon (Segel) and Violet Barnes (Blunt) to find the right time to have a wedding. He’s the sous chef at a top-flight San Francisco restaurant; she’s a psychology student looking for a doctoral program. When they first met a year earlier — the flashbacks are done as predictably gauzy-yet-absurdist memory plays — they clicked hard. Now Tom, nervously botching the very theatrical proposal he’d planned, asks Violet to marry him, and she says yes. It’s by-the-numbers boy-gets-girl stuff.
But then Violet’s sister, Suzie (Alison Brie), gets pregnant by Tom’s co-worker and the movie’s resident idiot, Alex (Chris Pratt), and their resulting wedding (and baby) push Tom and Violet’s plans out of the way. Soon Violet gets accepted into a prestigious two-year graduate program at the U. of Michigan. Tom, the sort of sweetie-bordering-on-sap in which Segel seems to specialize, agrees to quit his job and go with her to the Midwest, where even the locals laugh at him for leaving San Fran. (The Pure Michigan campaign is not going to take this well.)
The usual Apatow comedy themes are touched upon: Men have problems with women. Men have problems with their egos, maturity, self-definition and self-reliance. (Tom can’t find a job and ends up at a hippie sandwich shop, which allows Stoller to deploy his secret weapon, Brian Posehn, in the role of Tom’s slightly deranged co-worker.) Things are taken too far, such as the vulgarities dropped regularly and incongruously into the dialogue. If a joke works once, it’s done at least twice. There’s a ridiculous sequence in which the increasingly depressed Tom, who fears he’ll never get out of Michigan, takes to hunting, smoking venison, keeping bees and brewing mead.
Long before any of this, however, it’s clear that the question of weddings is completely irrelevant. Had “The Five-Year Engagement” been made 40 years ago, it would have had a cogent, if not exactly hilarious, joke: a loving couple thwarted by fate from ever being together. But here, they already are together: They live together, they sleep together, they share a destiny. Their lives are already intertwined, emotionally, spiritually and practically. So there’s nothing really at stake except a ceremony, and consequently, there’s no tension to the story.
Building a movie around a wedding, whether or whenever it actually takes place, is of course a sound commercial move, as Universal’s Apatow-produced hit “Bridesmaids” attests. But it’s not enough to sustain a comedy by itself, and while Segel and Blunt make likable enough leads, the strain is visible as the filmmakers try to make comedic hay out of disconnected segments, contrived situations and tangential characters. (Chris Parnell, as stay-at-home dad Bill, gives Tom a horrifying look at what his life might become.) The pic can’t seem to integrate conflict with comedy; when matters between Tom and Violet are grim, that’s generally how they stay. The acrimony between some of the characters isn’t at all amusing, and the nastier the attempts at humor, the less effective they are.
It’s only in the final minutes that “The Five-Year Engagement” starts to come together, in an extremely funny and charming Muppets-inspired moment. But it’s a little late to be thinking how one might indeed like to get to know the characters better, just as they’re saying goodbye.
Production values are topnotch, and Van Morrison fans will be won over by the score.