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Josh Reviews The Five-Year Engagement

In the opening scenes of The Five-Year Engagement, Tom (Jason Segel) and Violet (Emily Blunt) get engaged after having been dating for exactly a year.  They seem perfect for one another, and the engagement is quickly followed by a movie-perfect sweet/off-color engagement party.  Bring on the wedding, right?  Well, as you can tell from the title, not quite.  Violet gets accepted into a post-doc at the University of Michigan, so the couple decide to put off the wedding-planning temporarily to move from sunny San Francisco to cold, wintry Michigan.  The movie isn’t called The Two-Year Engagement, so obviously further obstacles spring up in Tom and Violet’s path.

I’ve been enjoying Jason Segel’s work ever since Freaks and Geeks. It’s hard to believe that the weird, gangly kid who the networks refused to cast as the lead in Judd Apatow’s follow-up series, Undeclared, despite Mr. Apatow’s championing of him (and who, as a result, Mr. Apatow snuck into episode after episode in the supporting role of Eric, Lizzie’s stalkerish ex-boyfriend) has over the last few years become a big-screen leading man.  I’ve never stopped being a big fan of his work.  In project after project, Mr. Segel can always be counted on to bring a certain oddball weirdness to all of his characters, but that weirdness is usually tempered by an inherent innocence and goodness.  He’s a fearless performer (yes, Mr. Segel is naked at times on-screen in this film, as he often is) and one not afraid to dive deeply into the well of psychosis.  My favorite section in the film is Tom’s descent into depression, as his two-years in Michigan slides into four and he becomes increasingly bitter about the chef-career he gave up for Violet.  Tom gets weird, and hairy (he sports a hysterical wild-man beard-thing), and obsessed with hunting, and the whole thing comes very, very close to being off-putting, but I thought it was an absolute riot.

The Five-Year Engagement is the third film directed by Nicholas Stoller.  His first film was the absolutely brilliant Forgetting Sarah Marshall (click here for my brief review), which he co-wrote with Jason Segel (who also appeared in the film, in his first major starring role).  Mr. Stoller also directed the sort-of sequel Get Him to the Greek (click here for my review), and he co-wrote The Muppets with Jason Segel (click here for my review).  So clearly Mr. Segel and Mr. Stoller are a well-oiled machine, and The Five-Year Engagement, while not quite as great as Forgetting Sarah Marshall, is a pretty terrific film that benefits greatly from their strong partnership.

It’s also a film that is unabashedly bizarre.  It’s a comedy, but the central premise of the film is that, for the vast majority of thestory, the two main characters are unhappy.  Despite an upbeat and promising beginning, the film is all about the many obstacles (some of outside origin, and some internal) that keep popping up to stand in the way of Tom and Violet’s happy life together.  It’s a sort of downbeat premise, actually, and Mr. Stoller, along with Mr. Segel and Ms. Blunt, don’t shy away from the genuine emotional pain that would follow.  There are certain stretches in the middle of the film that are rather sad, actually!

(I credit Ms. Blunt, in particular, for bringing her strong dramatic chops to bear on the story, and I think she elevates Mr. Segel into engaging with more dramatic territory.  Ms. Blunt is dynamite in the film, a great partner for Jason Segel — she’s not only beguiling, but she’s also very, very funny!  Her cirque de soleil impression — which popped up in the film’s trailers — is great, and her hilarious Elmo vs. Cookie Monster argument with her sister is a show-stopper.)

But I love that about the film.  I love that it doesn’t stick to an easier, more simplistic Hollywood formula.  I love that there’s real emotion in the movie, because that causes me to invest in the characters and their struggles and laugh all the more hard when the humor comes.  Yes, the film is a bit longer than it needs to be, and it does have a certain shaggy dog quality to its structure.  But I love that, and frankly I didn’t mind that I wasn’t necessarily laughing at every single second.

Because although there were some moments when I wasn’t laughing at all, the film is still very, very funny.  Mr. Segel and Mr. Stoller have develop some classic comedy bits for the film that play like gangbusters.  The afore-mentioned Elmo vs. Cookie Monster thing is genius, and then there’s Chris Pratt’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” engagement party song, Jason Segel’s fake orgasm, Chris Parnell’s sweaters, and so much more.

I’ve already praised Mr. Segel and Ms. Blunt for their strong work as the leads, but many of the pleasures of The Five-Year Engagement come (as per usual in a Judd Apatow production) from the wonderful supporting cast.  Chris Pratt (so funny as the dim but sweet Andy on Parks and Recreation) plays Tom’s best buddy Alex, a good-hearted (I loved the whole bit of business about the “receipts”) but profane fellow chef.  Alex starts up a relationship with Violet’s sister Suzie (Mad Men’s Alison Brie), and their relationship is almost as funny and interesting as Tom and Violet’s.  Ms. Brie gets some killer moments in the film, from her sobbing speech at Tom and Violet’s first engagement party to the I-just-can’t-stop-talking-about-it Elmo vs. Cookie Monster thing.

We also spend a lot of time with Violet’s co-workers in the Psych department of the University of Michigan, and they’re all fantastic.  Rhys Ifans plays Winton, the head of the department.  He’s charming and smart but also, as the film progresses, a bit of a kook himself with some impressive fighting skills.  Kevin Hart (so perfect in his first acting job back on Undeclared, and now a pretty big-time comedian)  plays Doug, who has some of the film’s best lines (particularly in his final scene).  The Office’s Mindy Kaling plays Vanetha, who has an unexplained bitter feud with fellow student Ming (Randall Park).  But I haven’t even scratched the surface of the film’s great supporting cast!  There’s SNL’s Chris Parnell as the slightly unhinged fellow faculty husband who Tom meets and soon begins going hunting with.  There’s comedian Brian Posehn as Tom’s pickle-snob boss at the sandwich shop where he gets a job in Michigan.  And then there’s Mimi Kennedy and the great, great David Paymer (The Larry Sanders Show, various David Mamet movies), perfectly cast as Tom’s parents.  (It’s hard to explain why I’m so tickled by the idea of David Paymer as Jason Segel’s dad.  I just am!!)  Each one of these characters gets some great scenes, and some hysterical lines in the film.  Together, this ensemble really fleshes out the world of the film, and helps make it such a funny ride.

I can definitely understand why The Five-Year Engagement hasn’t proved to be as big a success as some of Mr. Apatow’s other productions (The Forty Year-Old Virgin, Bridesmaids, etc.).  It’s just not the same type of crowd-pleaser as those movies.  But though it might be a little bit more off the beaten path, I really dug The Five-Year Engagement and think it proudly stands among the many, many great comedies Mr. Apatow has helped shepherd over the last decade.  Give it a shot.

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