There is a reason many romantic comedies conform to a tried-and-true formula, and it has little to do with the expectations of the audience. Most romantic comedies end with an affirmation of a relationship, whether it’s a marriage or a declaration of love, because of what comes afterward. By dwelling on the couple longer, there is a risk of reaching the ennui of The Graduate’s long, final bus ride. Formula tweaks are what make The Five-Year Engagement, the new romantic comedy by Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller, unintentionally gloomy. By favoring realism, it sometimes has more in common with Ingmar Bergman’s work than it does with Nora Ephron’s.
Living in San Francisco, Tom (Segel) and Violet (Emily Blunt) have a seemingly perfect life. She’s finishing her doctorate in psychology, and he’s a successful chef. When we first meet them, he’s charmingly nervous about proposing. She accepts, and the excitement over their impending marriage ends shortly after the engagement party. Tom’s best friend Alex (Chris Pratt) gives an embarrassing toast. The following evening, he knocks up Violet’s sister Suzie (Alison Brie), marrying her shortly after. As for Tom and Violet, they delay their marriage when she begins a post-doc at the University of Michigan. They expect to spend only two years in Ann Arbor, but once Violet’s mentor Winton (Rhys Ifans) offers her a fellowship, it looks like they’re stuck indefinitely. Tom is not happy to hear this news.
In terms of location, The Five Year Engagement is the opposite of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, the other Stoller/Segel romantic comedy. In Marshall, Segel experiences heartbreak and heads to a Hawaiian paradise. Here, Segel experiences romance then heads to a Michigan winter. Both locations have a way of exacerbating what the Segel character is feeling. Stuck in a college town with a dead-end job, Tom and Violet experience real relationship problems, the kind with no easy answers. They say hurtful things when they argue, and Tom experiences a crisis without any ambition or hope. Stoller and Segel make light of the predicament – Tom grows a silly beard, and takes up hunting– but the gravity of the problems betray their attempts at gentle humor.
Tonal problems not withstanding, Stoller and Segel are funny guys, so their gags stick when the jokes match the drama. The Five Year Engagement is at its best when it gets darkly funny, and for a romantic comedy, there is a surprising amount of blood and death. The supporting performances also help buoy the material. Any fan of NBC’s Thursday night line-up knows Pratt and Brie are gifted comic actors. They bring energy to undeveloped characters, elevating them beyond shtick. Alex sings to Tom on at least three occasions, for example, and each vocal performance is amateurish and mesmerizing in the right way. Other comic actors, including Mindy Kaling and Chris Parnell, are not as memorable, yet they give likable turns when the stakes are not so serious.
For a plurality of its considerable running time, Tom and Violet are at a heartbreaking impasse. Tom eventually has a professional epiphany of sorts, although DC audiences will wonder why it took him so long to have it. In terms of Tom’s relationship to Violet, the movie’s conclusion has disheartening implications. By book-ending the plot with whimsical sequences, the script implies the pair learn nothing from their dreadful time in Michigan. Normally I’m not one to think about characters, especially ones in romantic comedies, as if they’re actual people. But since The Five Year Engagement insists upon plausibility, what might have been a winning comedy instead becomes a depressing slog.