It's a given that Emily Blunt immediately elevates whatever movie she's in. Funny, charming, sexy and intelligent, she is able to take command of the screen while engaging with her co-stars in a way that's both authentic and spontaneous. She is that rare actor who seems to have chemistry with everyone.
What's surprising about The Five-Year Engagement, a mostly unsurprising romantic comedy, is how convincing Jason Segel is as a romantic lead. Since his center-stage debut in Forgetting Sarah Marshall (a movie he wrote), I have been skeptical about his ability to play a persuasive male love interest. While perfectly likable as the disheveled comic foil (I Love You, Man; Knocked Up; Bad Teacher), Segel never seems to have the weight and presence to sustain a leading role. Even in The Muppets, another movie he helped pen, he struggled to hold his own against Kermit, the gang and Amy Adams. But in The Five-Year Engagement, his performance really connects. And he isn't really doing anything different. Maybe it's the Blunt factor.
Too bad his screenplay, co-written with director Nicholas Stoller, is simultaneously too stuffed with subplots and too thin on its central drama to stand out. Like Segel's past roles, it's humorous and good-natured enough to pass the time but far from memorable.
Segel's Tom Solomon is a San Francisco sous chef who pops the question to his girlfriend, Blunt's Violet, on New Year's Eve. Though only together a year, the two are clearly in love, and plans for the big day begin. But then Violet is offered a post-doctoral position at the University of Michigan, and the couple decides to put those marital plans on hold as they adjust to the shift in locale and career opportunities. Tom gives up a head chef position at a trendy restaurant to support Violet's dream job, with the expectation that their stay is temporary. Of course, plans change yet again as Violet's psych studies gain momentum under the guidance of her charismatic boss (Rhys Ifans) and two years turn into five. Feeling neglected, hating Michigan and lacking career options, Tom slips into a bitter funk, putting into doubt whether the couple's relationship will survive.
As women achieve ever-greater economic success and couples contend with conflicting career paths, the potential to explore the sacrifices, compromises and frustrations of modern love are ripe with comic possibility. Unfortunately, The Five-Year Engagement mostly opts for predictable plot turns and schematic rom-com complications. Blunt and Segel make a good team, and the jokes, especially in the first third of the film, are solid. But the movie runs too long, stretching its contrived and disconnected situations beyond their ability to generate laughs or pathos. This creates increasingly awkward tonal shifts as the story bounces from funny to serious to tangential.
The supporting cast — which includes Chris Parnell, Brian Posehn, Kevin Hart and Mindy Kaling — is utilized in a similarly uneven fashion. Only Chris Pratt (Andy from Parks and Recreation), playing Tom's dim-witted best friend, shines with any consistency, stealing almost every scene he's in. There are certainly moments that work, but others just flop like a dying fish. In between, we get shots of Michigan's changing seasons, unconvincing attempts to convey the passage of time. Toward its end, Segel even manages to squeeze in a reference to his beloved Muppets — one of the film's better moments.
Hearts are broken. Hearts mend. A few good chuckles are had along the way. Ultimately, The Five-Year Engagement ends exactly where you expect it to. And yet, its finale is fresh and heartfelt enough to win us back from its meandering third act. It should be another profitable arrow in super-producer Judd Apatow's rom-com quiver — not quite as barbed or pointed as you hoped, but landing close enough to the target to inspire a decent date night at the movies.
Opens Friday, May 4, at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
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