Without a man-child to bring to maturity, the past decade's dominant comedy crew falls flat.
Movies from the Judd Apatow gang have always been more mature than they've looked. Knocked Up, The Forty Year Old Virgin, Funny People et al are silly and crass on the surface but sweet and sentimental at heart. You come for the implausible premise—the middle-aged man who's never had sex! The schlub who gets the hot girl pregnant!—and juvenile humor. But you stay for the satisfying coming-of-age story. The middle-aged virgin realizes it's time to grow up; the schlub decides to ditch his bong.
The Five-Year Engagement, out this week, is an inversion of the classic Apatow scenario. At first glance, this movie—produced by Apatow, written by Muppets screenwriting team Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller—looks like a tale about embracing maturity and commitment. The very title implies a certain story arc: Couple gets engaged; one (or more) person in couple realizes he/she has Fear of Commitment; couple stalls; couple finally gets over fear and marries.
But the couple in question ends up doing very little of the growing and maturing that's central to Apatow's and even Segel's other films. That's because the obstacle to marriage in The Five-Year Engagement isn't one character's fear or immaturity or bad habits. Instead, it's a lousy set of circumstances: One half of the couple wants to live in one city, while the other half needs to live elsewhere for her job. Making geography rather than immaturity the crux of the movie's tension is a fatal mistake for The Five-Year Engagement. The result is a film that's long, boring, stale, only occasionally funny, and worst of all, pointless.
The movie opens with Tom (Segel) proposing to Violet (Emily Blunt), the woman he's been dating for a year. If this were almost any other Apatow film, there would be something glaringly wrong with Tom—he doesn't have a job, say, or he lives with a pack of pot-smoking losers—and the rest of the movie would set out to fix it. But Tom is actually in pretty good shape. He's a talented sous chef at a popular San Francisco restaurant, where he's won the respect of his tough boss. He lives in a simple, tastefully decorated apartment with Violet, who's no slouch, either. She's just completed a Ph.D. in psychology and is waiting on offers for post-doc work.
When the long-awaited job offer comes, it's not from nearby Berkeley, as Violet had hoped, but the University of Michigan. Tom's clearly not excited about the idea of moving, especially when his boss tells him she wants to make him head chef of a new restaurant she's opening. But he resolves to go anyway. "We can handle anything," the two declare.
Michigan turns out to be a trickier relationship snag than arrested development, though. Violet immerses herself in her work at the university, where her boss and colleagues lavish her with praise. Tom, meanwhile, languishes. He can't get a job in any of the local upscale restaurants—which are inferior to San Francisco's anyway, the movie unsubtly implies—so he takes a position as a sandwich-maker at a fancy deli. He quickly becomes miserable. "You have no idea how hard it is to be a man in a relationship and not have a job you're proud of," he tells Violet, in one of the film's few emotionally compelling scenes. (Another involves Violet and her sister talking to each other in Sesame Street voices.)
After a few years in Ann Arbor (how many is unclear—the movie is frustratingly bad at marking time), Tom transforms into a more familiar Apatow leading man: weird, antisocial, and dependent on his male friends. He takes up deer hunting and beekeeping, and pals around with an alcoholic pickle expert and a stay-at-home dad who knits sweaters for fun. He grows some unfortunate facial hair. When Violet's sister and brother-in-law come for a visit, they're afraid to leave their daughter alone with him. It goes without saying that Tom and Violet don't feel much like marrying each other throughout their Michigan sojourn, so the wedding date keeps getting pushed off into the increasingly uncertain future. And without a wedding to plan or a problem to solve (other than the miserableness of Michigan), the film loses its focus. Violet engineers a successful psychology experiment involving stale doughnuts (a too-fitting recurring symbol for a movie as boring as this). Tom works on his bow-and-arrow skills. Members of the audience check their phones.
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At this point, the movie's narrative arc is still salvageable. Tom could learn a lesson about the importance of adapting to difficult circumstances. He could get over the fact that Ann Arbor isn't San Francisco and decide to make the best of it anyway—maybe open his own restaurant or start a catering service. Instead, The Five-Year Engagement endorses the idea that Michigan, not Tom's inflexibility, is the problem: When the setting changes, his ambition returns. He goes back to working hard and planning ahead. This only makes the ramble through Michigan that much more infuriating—if Tom wasn't going to learn anything from his unhappiness, why do the filmmakers make us watch so much of it?
So, rather than telling growing-up or growing-together story, The Five-Year Engagement gives us... a screed on the dangers of moving to Middle America? A warning against making sacrifices for your significant other? It's not really clear. The Five-Year Engagement has all the usual Apatow whistles and bells: anatomy jokes (and not just his infamous dick jokes—this movie also mines humor from toe- and finger-loss), sex-obsessed women, and colorful supporting characters. But all that stuff is usually window dressing for a deeper message, one that drives the plot and adds emotional heft. Without that message, The Five-Year Engagement is just an overly long look at someone else's relationship, with a few crude jokes to break up the boredom.