Review: Segel and Blunt make ‘Five Year Engagement’ both funny and painful

Nicholas Stoller’s films are frequently lumped in under the broader umbrella of “Judd Apatow movies,” but I think that’s not fair.  Yes, Apatow helped usher in a certain style of studio comedy that is now a major part of the landscape, but he doesn’t write and direct every movie that he produces.  Stoller’s movies, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall, “Get Him To The Greek,” and this week’s new release “The Five-Year Engagement,” have their own identity, their own unruly voice, and I think he’s doing a nice job of honing that identity from film to film.

Working with Jason Segel, it seems to me that Stoller is fascinated by just how far he can push a character or characters before they break.  In “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” Segel played wounded very well, and the gradual way he mended his heart was charted with honesty even though it was also packed with laughs.  “Greek” was all about testing the character played by Jonah Hill and seeing just how much he was willing to put up with from someone he idolized.  Now, with this film, Stoller and Segel are once again writing about something real, wrapping up some painful truth in some big comedy set piece moments, and if the film has a major flaw, it is inherent to the premise itself.

The film opens with Tom (Segel) proposing to Violet (Emily Blunt) on their one-year anniversary.  It’s a sweet scene, and from the quick cuts to the way they met the year before, it seems like they’re a sure thing, a perfect match.  They’re both at the beginning of their careers, struggling to get established, and they are excited about getting married and starting their lives together.  Then real life begins to intrude, and one choice after another pushes the event back.  Violet gets a job at a university in Michigan, and Tom decides to follow her, looking for work as a chef in a decidedly different market than San Francisco.  The film really doesn’t follow the structure of the average romantic comedy, and because one year stretches into two and then three and then beyond, there is a sort of stagnation that’s built into the film.  It is part of the story they’re telling, but it’s also almost counter-intuitive to the nature of drama.  They have to justify the way Violet and Tom get lost in the details of their daily life, and there’s a frustration that sets in that is very authentic.

In some ways, it is the serious material in the film that works best for me.  I know that Stoller and Segel and producer Rodney Rothman are funny, and the film is loaded with great laugh lines and sharp character observations, but what I find more compelling is just how dark they let things get.  There’s a stretch in the middle of the film where Tom sort of falls off the deep end, and Segel goes for it.  He doesn’t try to put a nice face on the emotional free fall, and if anything, he almost dares the audience to maintain sympathy for him.  It does raise a troubling question, though, because there’s a point where it is obvious that Tom and Violet are doing damage to each other by staying together, and I found myself almost rooting for the film to end unconventionally, without the happy Hollywood ending.  When the film does finally start to move in the direction you’d expect, they have to work harder to justify things because they’ve done such a good job of driving them apart, and I’m not sure it entirely earns its resolution.  It plays well, but considering how good Stoller is at finding difficult truth even amidst broad comic moments, it’s disappointing to see the machinery grinding away at a moment where we should be emotionally engaged.

The film’s greatest strength is its large ensemble cast, and they score some great moments along the way.  Alison Brie and Chris Pratt both deliver in their roles as Blunt’s sister and Segel’s best friend, and in some ways, I was almost more interested in the relationship between them.  Dakota Johnson, Lauren Weedman, Mindy Kaling, Randall Park, Kevin Hart, Rhys Ifans, Brian Posehn, Chris Parnell… they all score major points in their time onscreen, and as a result, even when the film feels stuck in second gear, it’s not boring.  Segel and Blunt are both rock solid in the leads, and I think Blunt creates a really interesting energy that pushes Segel to some new places as a performer.  They are an intriguing couple, and they are both good here, even when the script doesn’t quite know what to do with them.  If anything, Stoller’s films feel like they are spilling over at the edge of the frame, like the movies can barely contain all the ideas they contain.  And while I don’t think he’s made his great film yet, I think his voice is really lovely, and I am confident that these flawed, messy, vibrant movies he’s making are all warm-up to something really special, and I’ll take this sort of imperfect over the impersonal, mechanical fare that so frequently succeeds in this genre.

“The Five-Year Engagement” opens in theaters today.