Albert Brooks meets Hal Ashby meets Judd Apatow in The Five-Year Engagement, a new romantic comedy whose pessimism, sweetness, raunch and loopiness make for a pleasantly offbeat blend.
Jason Segel and Emily Blunt (both last seen in The Muppets) star as Tom and Violet, a San Francisco couple ready to take their relationship to the next level...or so they think. Planning follows proposal, but everything gets put on hold when Violet gets an untimely chance at having it all. Violet's acceptance into the University of Michigan's grad-school psychology program prompts classic pleaser Tom to prove his love and generosity by immediately offering to quit his job as a top chef, postpone the wedding, and move east.
Violet's mother (Jacki Weaver of Animal Kingdom) frets and warns of grandparents who might not live to see the big day (will there be four funerals and a wedding?), but the greater problem may be Tom's festering resentment, which he keeps shoving deeper as he deals with his off-putting new surroundings. Reestablishing himself as an overqualified sandwich-maker at a local deli, Tom tries to settle into his new role as the college husband, forgotten by Violet at departmental parties.
Meanwhile, Violet becomes happily consumed in her work, and falls into the thrall of her teacher and boss Winton Childs (Rhys Ifans). It's apt that Violet's field is psychology, since the film— more so than any in recent memory—becomes a psychocomedy, a la Brooks' Modern Romance. Every issue gets examined, usually in the language of therapy, leading to lengthy arguments and a great deal of acting out, whether passive-aggressive (Tom growing a wild-man beard) or just plain aggressive-aggressive (infidelity).
That the film isn't afraid to go dark may be its greatest strength, though director Nicholas Stoller—who co-wrote the script with Segel—is equally adept at crafting legitimate "aw shucks" sweetness that doesn't lose the film's "cool," so to speak (hence the dash of Ashby). The inherently male point-of-view somewhat upsets the film's balance, but it also means a thorough exploration of the unfair-er sex's post-feminist defensiveness.
As Bill, a fellow college husband who becomes Tom's mentor, Chris Parnell embodies the consequences of emasculation. Left to his own devices, Bill has taken to knitting sweaters—poorly, for double the embarrassment—and amping up his hunting hobby. Tom embraces the latter, which leads the film into its most exaggerated territory (the better for a crossbow accident).
Because this is an Apatow production, absurdity is welcome (there's also an out-of-nowhere parkour exhibition), the film can be a bit too eager to shock, and the running time creeps past two hours. But the heroes crucially remain likeable, thanks to Segel and Blunt; the film is full of funny performances (from the likes of Chris Pratt, Mindy Kaling and Brian Posehn); and its emotional range distinguishes it, up to and including a climax that achieves true romance.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]