Thursday, April 26, 2012

In Theaters: "The Five Year Engagement"

The Five-Year Engagement runs 124 minutes. Let’s put that number out there and deal with it, since everyone seems so weirdly obsessed with the fact, even though producer Judd Apatow’s films regularly run north of the two-hour mark (Bridesmaids: 125 minutes; Knocked Up: 129 minutes; Funny People: 146 minutes), or just shy of it (The 40-Year-Old Virgin: 116 minutes; Superbad: 113 minutes; Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Pineapple Express: 111 minutes). That freedom from the confines of the 90-minute running time is, I would argue, a key component into the astonishingly high success rate of his comedies, since those expanded canvases allow greater experimentation, more indulgences in serious scenes and themes, and the opportunity to create a genuine texture for the characters and their situations. Sure, there are a few scenes and a couple of supporting characters that a ruthless editor could have hacked out of The Five-Year Engagement; there’s probably a perfectly adequate 97-minute version to be made of this film. It would be a lesser picture. In its current form, the film is messy, unruly, and roughshod—and that’s exactly as it should be.

It marks a reunion for the team of producer Apatow, co-writer/star Jason Segel, and co-writer/director Nicholas Stoller (Segel and Stoller also collaborated on the screenplay to The Muppets). Segel stars as Tom, a successful San Franciso chef who, as the story begins, is about to propose to his beautiful girlfriend Violet (Emily Blunt, never better). The proposal keeps getting interrupted and fumbled. That turns out to be an unfortunate foreshadowing of the engagement that will follow.

The script leaps into character-based comedy rather quickly, perhaps before the characters have really been established—but everyone’s basically playing variations on their usual personas, and that’s sort of fine. Frankly, there wouldn’t be much time for plot after proper introductions of a cast with this many comic heavy hitters: Alison Brie, Chris Pratt, Kevin Hart, Mindy Kaling, Rhys Ifans, Brian Posehn, and Chris Parnell all turn up, and all deliver. (NBC Thursday night-mates Brie and Pratt make an especially enjoyable comic team.)

And in spite of the apparently insurmountable running time, the picture is briskly paced—the scenes are mostly short and concise, and Stoller is usually smart enough to get in, get the joke, and get out. There are a couple of awkward cuts and an unfortunate appearance by our old (and unmissed) friend the Semi-Obligatory Lyrical Interlude, but his direction is, on the whole, right up to snuff.

His smartest play—as both a director and co-writer—is choosing to treat the central relationship seriously, and to play its conflicts and troubles straight. Segel and Blunt are a likable and believable couple, with an easy-going, lived-in chemistry, but they’re getting at something real and heartfelt about the difficulties of a long-term relationship here; there’s an honesty in those scenes that’s seldom seen in romantic drama, to say nothing of comedy. Because the filmmakers craft the Tom and Violet dynamic with some care and candor, we actually get attached to these people. And because it doesn’t all seem easy and pre-determined, there’s actually a modicum of tension and interest; in fact, neither their scenes nor the overall arc of their engagement goes in the expected directions. They occasionally zig when you expect a zag—and then they go for the laugh.

That sense of complication and sincerity is all too rare, and entirely welcome; same goes for Blunt’s coming-out as a comic leading lady, as capable and charming doing full-on slapstick as delivering crackerjack retorts with a screwball snap (I wish I could describe what exactly it is that she’s doing in the way she says the line “Because she’s a child,” but whatever it is, it’s genius). And it must also be noted that the soundtrack is jammed with Van Morrison songs and covers, including the deployment of “Sweet Thing” in conjunction with a masterful series of callbacks to the night they first met. Full disclosure: that is the song my wife walked down the aisle to. But even if that weren’t the case, I’m pretty sure The Five-Year Engagement would’ve gotten to me anyway.

"The Five-Year Engagement" is out tomorrow in wide release.

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