‘Must see’ movie : The Five Year Engagement

In any given year movie theatres are filled with a lot of terrible romantic comedies, and after sitting through five or six you begin to believe that there’s a conveyor belt somewhere mass producing romcom after romcom, co-starring either Katherine Heigl or Gerard Butler or, worse, their near-lethal joint effort, the Yugo of romcoms: ‘The Ugly Truth’

So rejoice when something as sharp and funny as The Five-Year Engagement comes along. As in last year’s ‘Bridesmaids’, an authentic, dimensional human element animates the jokes and the characters with whom we spend a couple of highly satisfying hours.

Jason Segel, co-wrote the script with director Nicholas Stoller, (they also co-wrote ‘The Muppets’, ‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall’ and ‘Get Him To the Greek’. This is nowhere near as zany as the latter two, but there’s definitely a new found maturity — even if it is buried under needlessly extended bodily humiliations (this seems as good a place as any to mention that Judd Apatow produced)

The movie begins where others typically wrap it up. Impossibly decent San Francisco chef Tom Solomon (Segel) proposes to Violet Barnes, played by the fabulous Emily Blunt. She wants to do doctoral studies in social psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. But when the call comes, it’s from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor

Plans are adjusted. Tom gives up his shot at running the kitchen in a fancy new Bay Area bistro to relocate, with Violet, to Ann Arbor, where after a deceptively quick job-hunting sequence he finds work at the finest deli between the coasts, Zingerman’s, which is a real place (and what a place!) and a presence as crucial as any in the formidable Five-Year Engagement ensemble

Tom and Violet hear their wedding bells, but fate and their own doubts conspire to keep them off in the distance. While they postpone their marriage for one reason, and then another, Tom’s best friend and fellow chef Alex (Chris Pratt) hooks up with Violet’s sister, Suzie (Alison Brie). Theirs seems like a haphazard coupling with no future, but before long they have a child on the way, leaving Tom and Violet in the dust, Facebook update-wise

“This is your wedding!” Suzie tells Violet before the first postponement. “You only get a few of those!” The punch line’s clever, but it’s not delivered for an imaginary laugh track. Stoller’s film proceeds with a blithe confidence. In outline form, The Five-Year Engagement goes by the numbers. The script creates useful supporting cliques for both major characters. Violet’s psych-study group, led by her subtly wolfish professor (Rhys Ifans), is a prime group of eccentrics, including Mindy Kaling as a researcher of considerable undermining skills. Tom falls in with the Zingerman’s pickle expert (Brian Posehn) and improbably discovers deer hunting with another ‘faculty husband’, a mild-mannered chap played by Chris Parnell

Shooting in San Francisco and Ann Arbor, cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe (who’s worked with Pedro Almodovar) lends The Five-Year Engagement a lovely sheen, far easier on the eye than any previous Judd Apatow-produced comedy. As co-writer and star, Segel is a generous leader. He’s happy to cede attention and big laughs to his co-stars, even when Pratt, as Segel’s boyish best friend, threatens to steal the film with an inspired variation on Segel’s adorable goofball persona

The narrative formulas aren’t exactly new; they wouldn’t be formulas if they were. But one scene in particular seals our investment in the story. It’s a late-night argument, following a dicey encounter between Violet and her mentor, and the way Blunt and Segel build the scene, it feels utterly true (without sacrificing the funny). When the relationship at the movie’s heart threatens to erode from within, in time-tested romantic-comedy tradition, you feel for both halves equally. And by the end, you realize how seldom this happens in this most devalued of genres

Blunt has never been more relaxed, and she and Segel have a believably warm chemistry. It’s also nice to find a romantic comedy with so much respect for both its leads: there are no heroes or villains here, just funny, likable characters figuring out modern life together

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June 27, 2012

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