Only in a movie where people can get shot with an arrow from a crossbow and spend the rest of their night quietly recuperating on the couch is it within the bounds of reality for Violet (Emily Blunt) to fall instantly in love with Tom (Jason Segel), a schlubby puppydog of a man. That’s not to say that a gorgeous woman could never see the qualities in Tom that might make her pledge her undying love, just… she’d have to get to know him first, and in The Five-Year Engagement she goes instantly into a swoon.
By now, Segel the actor is rehashing his trademark, the big, sweet, funny Average Joe — the approachable Everyman, sexy because of his self-aware ordinariness. Unfortunately, Segel the screenwriter is returning to familiar territory, as well, exploiting an alien culture (once he used Hawaii, now it’s the Midwest) for low-rent jokes. Just as with the equally very funny Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Segel (with writing partner/director Nicholas Stoller) has penned The Five-Year Engagement as a vehicle for his jokester character to win his romantic conquests using not much more, script-wise, than a lackadaisical worldview and some casual handsomeness. The result feels false. Like a mirror image of the Segel/Blunt cross-genre coupling, this film’s pairing of comedy and drama is unconvincing.
Two key scenes typify the discordance at the heart of this movie. In one, long-term fiancés Tom and Violet lay in bed in their Michigan home having their first true, deep, get-it-all-out spat. It centers around his having moved to Michigan, where he’s miserable, from San Francisco, where he was happy, so that she could pursue her dream job. The scene is long and multi-faceted, requiring Segel to set aside his reliance on comedy and really act (this is also required of Blunt, but for her it’s a cakewalk.) About five minutes into their exchange, I was pulled out of the argument by the realization that not one joke had passed between them, or between them and us. Here was a scene featuring a working relationship, a serious argument, and real consequences, plunked into the middle of what had up to then been a comedy. By the end of it, Segel has been convinced out of helpless love for Blunt to stick it out in frigid Michigan.
This moment of surprising sincerity clashes horribly with the left turn the movie makes next. In order to make a go of the North, Segel dons a wardrobe of awful home-knit sweaters, grows gnarly mutton-chops, and turns into one of those guys who live to bow-hunt (he becomes the bearer of the aforementioned crossbow). Overnight, he transforms into what Hollywood generally supposes a resident of Michigan acts like. When his friends from San Francisco (Chris Pratt and Alison Brie) arrive for a visit, they’re stunned to find Segel looking like The Unabomber while serving them his homemade mead and regaling them with tales of the many deer carcasses hanging upside down in his garage.
One scene pulls us into the movie, the next pushes us right back out. The Five-Year Engagement’s inability to decide what to be — its awkward collision of genres and wild tone shifts — mirrors the indecision of Segel’s generation and mine, the 30-and-still-undecided crowd. It’s one of a recent slew of movies caught between the humor of teenage boys and the desire to make more mature films. This sub-genre, popularized by the estimable Judd Apatow, has yet to produce its masterpiece, an engaging marriage of comedy and drama that feels organic. The Five-Year Engagement, for long stretches, can pull off both. What it bumbles is the attempt to blend them.
At one point, after the plot has dropped its requisite axe through the engagement, Tom squirms to justify to his parents his decision to give up the ridiculously perfect Violet. His mother (Mimi Kennedy) dresses him smartly down from across the table of a swank restaurant, ending an eloquent, pointed tirade with, “Fuck you. You’re stupid.” It’s the best line in the film, and the one that most aptly encapsulates what the movie wants to be.