Thursday 28 June 2012
Put a ring on it: "The Five-Year Engagement"
The overriding problem with The Five-Year Engagement is that it takes place over five years, and very nearly feels like it. There's no urgency in the set-up of Nicholas Stoller's new comedy, which sees an upwardly mobile couple - researcher Violet (Emily Blunt) and aspirant chef Tom (Jason Segel) - using their professional commitments as first a reason, then an excuse, to postpone their nuptials. What we end up watching is a pair of procrastinators stringing out the inevitable, and being enabled to do so by the New American Comedy's tendency to drag its heels in pursuit of something funnier and more revealing. One of Violet's psych-lab case studies involves leaving a box of stale doughnuts out for her subjects, and seeing whether or not they have the will to hold out for the fresh ones she promises to bring them; that stick-or-twist temptation sits close to the experience of watching the film, which goes on for such time as to kill off all its lovers' grandparents, allow Tom's father to get through not one, not two, but three Asian brides, and cue numerous montages scored to a Damien Rice song (or similar). You could pop out and get doughnuts and not miss anything of major consequence; hell, you could get up and bake your own doughnuts before the big day arrives. The film's presiding spirit is part Judd Apatow, and seemingly part Jacques Rivette.
The issue isn't the time itself, but how Stoller and Segel, co-writers here, have chosen to fill it. These comedies remain good for pop-cultural riffs, but - as amusingly incongruous as Engagement's callbacks to Ratatouille and (again) The Notebook may be - they're no substitute for actual, crafted gags, and in this instance actually come to work against the film. Violet's mum (Jacki Weaver from Animal Kingdom, funnily enough) gets an engagement-party speech setting out the film's thesis that if relationships were Tom Hanks movies, they wouldn't be the romcoms, but Private Ryan and Philadelphia: battlegrounds, in so many words. Engagement nevertheless hews closer to the former rather than latter model. Yes, Violet receives a crossbow bolt to the leg, and yes, Tom will have a toe amputated in the course of proceedings, but these are superficial wounds within the context of the film, temporary setbacks that will be shrugged off by the time the scene-after-next has shambled along. The moral is that love hurts, but we get on (and go on) with it all the same, which doesn't feel too great a revelation.
Particularly not as set out here: in lengthy, chatty, visually undistinguished scenes that probe away insistently at the exact same things. We get that Tom's decision to quit his job to support her career threatens to emasculate him; the sequences that set him to knitting, cake-testing and growing mutton-chop sideburns in a misguided attempt to pass as a woodsman are thus so much (only mildly funny) padding, and actually not a million miles away from the "Dad's Club" scenes in the decidedly unhip non-com What to Expect When You're Expecting. Segel, who's grown into a likable screen presence in recent years, ends up seeming as flabby as the film, labouring through the same comic beats over and over again, or huffing and puffing after punchlines that remain just out of reach. We, on the other hand, are allowed ample time to spot plot developments coming from a distance of several reels; the one twist you don't see coming is that Tom's career will enjoy a midfilm renaissance of sorts, allowing the second hour to replay the first with the boot on the other foot.
The minute Rhys Ifans appears on screen, shooting jets of fire from his sleeves as Violet's charismatic study-supervisor, we gather his student is going to be tempted enough to delay her wedding for another half-hour or so; though Blunt is well-placed to make something vaguely sympathetic of a fundamentally infuriating character, a ditz who forgets to bring the funny is doomed to become an annoyance, particularly with the added distraction of Ms. Blunt's gleamingly prominent (newly capped?) upper front teeth. (You have time to notice, and become irritated by, these things.) Putting enough funny people in front of a camera, and filming them for two hours, is bound to generate the odd snort and chuckle, and it remains heartening to see a school of comedy still prepared to float the odd idea - about comedy, about life - even if more sink than swim: the dealbreaker (or clincher) may be the row between Violet and her sister conducted in the voices of prominent Sesame Street characters, which would be funny if it wasn't allowed to go on just about all afternoon. The majority of Stoller's manoeuvres, though - right through to the last-reel drive to the airport - are as that box of stale doughnuts. I'd hold out for fresher ones, if I were you.
The Five-Year Engagement is in cinemas nationwide.