The Five-Year Engagement  (2012)    72/100

Rating 72/100                                                                         124 Min        15

In Brief : Well worth going to see.

Contents :
Mini Review
Plot
Full Review

Mini Review : ‘The Five-Year Engagement’ is a well rounded piece that sees both the main and the supporting cast deliver throughout. It follows in a similar vein to producer Judd Apatow’s previous work, romantic comedies with drama as subterfuge and a free rein on the actors to improvise. This, together with the familiarity of some of the cast and co-writer/director/producer Nicholas Stoller (Segel also co-wrote the script), has a telling effect on the production which gels together nicely. The film cleverly has at its core something everyone in a long term relationship can probably relate to, and yet despite the fact it plays out over the length of the film it never feels overstated or forced. Segel and Blunt combine to make a realistic and engaging (no pun intended) couple and a film that all involved with can be justifiably proud of.

Plot : Tom and Violet are madly in love with each other and decide to embark upon the adventure of marriage. Before they can set a date for the wedding though life interferes, and an extended period of postponement forces them to re-evaluate what they mean to each other.

Full Review (contains spoilers) : ‘The Five-Year Engagement’ opens with Jason Segel’s Tom fumbling his proposal of marriage to Emily Blunt’s Violet. She drags his plan out of him and they follow it through anyway, culminating in a rooftop restaurant scene with a New Year’s eve fireworks display over the Golden Gates Bridge as a backdrop. It’s a lovely scene, and it sets the tone for the entire film which in its entirety is well shot, edited, acted and written, with the gags shared between the leads and support in fairly equal measure.

We get some more of their back story – how they met exactly one year ago at a New Year’s eve party whilst Van Morrison’s ‘Sweet Thing’ played around them (which is from his very excellent second solo album ‘Astral Weeks’ – you can listen to the song here…)

 

Everything starts with them on a high after the marriage proposal is accepted. Tom works directly under the head chef in a swanky restaurant, whilst Violet is hopeful of getting into Berkeley to begin postdoc work in her field of psychology. Then of course things become more difficult. Violet is offered a position at the University of Michigan, the wedding is continually postponed, and their relationship is tested as Tom spirals downward, forced to endure work he feels is beneath him, whilst his friend Alex (played by Chris Pratt) back home takes the job of head chef at a new clam shell restaurant that otherwise would have been his. This allows the real centre of the film to play out, a drawn out examination of the realities of choosing a lifelong partner.

Judd Apatow has said of the moment Tom decides to go to Michigan for the sake of Violet’s career that it’s like he does it to score points for later, as if by doing so he gains ‘relationship chips’ that can be traded in at a later date, and that he himself, and probably lots of other people, has done the same thing, but that it’s a fantasy and there are no ‘chips’ – once it’s done you’ve agreed to it and that’s that. The assumption being if it then eats away at you then it’s your own fault. It’s a very interesting point, and one that will probably be familiar to anyone in a relationship, one half has accepted the decision and then largely forgotten about it, whilst the other is still expecting some sort of continual reward having made a sacrifice for the other’s benefit, perhaps sewing the seeds of resentment… It is true that because of this the audience do sympathise with Tom as we see him lose himself to a large degree over the years, becoming almost feral in a situation and place that he hates and, as he puts it, working at something he isn’t proud of. This is especially true when we are introduced to the suave university lecturer of Winton Childs played by Rhys Ifans. His introduction as the ultra cool psychology professor is very good, replete with pyrotechnics, but we know instantly he is going to be the contesting love interest for Violet. We the audience want him to fail because we feel what’s happening to Tom is pretty unfair and Childs seems somewhat insincere from the beginning (even his name suggests he might be praying on a younger generation). Rhys Ifans has said himself he was attracted to the character because he loves to see the ‘cool’ guy fall from grace, and that’s exactly what we are hoping for here. One can easily imagine a lonely life of academia leading to its abuse or payoff, depending on which way you see it, with attractive and impressionable young graduates/undergrads. The character then feels predictable but realistic, at one end of the scale of debonair cinematic professors perhaps, with Indiana Jones winning hearts and treasure at the other. The script is careful though not to alienate Violet in the process, which it manages to successfully avoid.

One of the worthiest moments comes at the dinner scene with Tom and his parents, who are still married to one another and seem pretty happy together. Tom has split from Violet and is seeing a young girl in her early twenties (the actress who plays her, Dakota Johnson, is the granddaughter of Tippi Hedren {‘The Birds’ 63, ‘Marnie’ 64} no less) and they rather directly tell him to get his act together and get back with Violet as he clearly loves her. When he says they aren’t one hundred percent right for each other, they reply that they themselves aren’t even sixty percent right for one another, but they are still the loves of each other’s lives. And this is essentially the main message behind the film – that if you find someone you really like, accepting they are never going to be perfect is paramount and once you’ve accepted that your responsibility to one another is to simply get on with enjoying yourselves. Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward were one of Hollywood’s couples that stood the test of time, happily married for fifty years right until his passing in 2008, and one of the reasons he gave for it was that they had some things they only ever did independently of one another. He loved racing cars, she couldn’t stand the sport, for example, but that was fine, the only thing that mattered was that they loved each other (I suppose having a legitimate break from each other with your separate hobbies also has a lot going for it. When asked about his devotion to his wife he famously once remarked “Why go out for a hamburger when you have steak at home?”). In the film, this concept is mirrored in sharp contrast with the deliberately accentuated coupling of Violet’s sister Suzie (played by Alison Brie) and Tom’s friend Alex, neither of whom seem right for each other but after an accidental pregnancy everything changes. They end up happy as can be, despite their lives having gone in the polar opposite direction from where they had each planned. We don’t see any of the interim period between the revealing of the pregnancy and their wedding, so the realities of their particular scenario are ignored in order to provide a counter point to the main couple. This is hammered home during the wonderful scene where, doing Elmo and Cookie Monster impressions respectively for the sake of the listening children, Suzie and Violet have their own version of the dinner table conversation, with the former suggesting it’s best to just pick a cookie and take a bite. It was actually Brie’s ability to impersonate Elmo that apparently may have landed her the part in the first place, despite the fact she is also the only cast member who had to learn an accent for her role. Full credit is due to her, not only for a very good Elmo impersonation but also for a convincing English accent to boot.

The film works so well because all of the constituent parts are good in their own right, and come together almost seamlessly. All of the support is good and Blunt and Segel are a joy to watch together. Segel in particular delivers the goods here and co-wrote the script along with director Nicholas Stoller (‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall’ 08, ‘Get him to the Greek’ 10). This is the third outing for the main stars together, after ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ (10) and ‘The Muppets’ (11), with Stoller taking writing credits on both of these films too, and their familiarity with one another doubtless helped things along. For Emily Blunt it’s one of three very good releases in a short space of time (the others being ‘Salmon fishing in the Yemen’ 11 and ‘Your Sister’s Sister’ 11), indeed it’s difficult to think of many other performers with a similarly good back to back trio. It’s great to see after the misfires and waste of her talent in the aforementioned ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ and ‘Wild Target’ (10). Red Dragon did notice the one gratuitous shot of her in this film, as she mounts Tom after he has agreed to go to Michigan and the camera pans around the back of her body as she does so, almost as if the director had decided ‘Right, I’m going to show off Emily Blunt’s figure at least once in the film no matter what!’. The two of them sell the story of their characters perfectly, and it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see them collaborate together again in the future.

As with other Apatow productions the comedy is set against the backdrop of the emotional journey of the characters, and on set a lot of leeway was given for improv. It’s good to see a filmmaker who’s not afraid of the costs running over in favour of the actors and crew enjoying themselves with improvisation. After all, as John Rhys-Davies says on the special features of ‘The Return of the King’ (03), a high percentage of improvisation is probably going to be bollocks, and thereby result in extended shooting times and the use of more film. It may be that it’s one of the fundamental reasons his films do so well, and there is doubtless a lot to be said for a shoot that is constantly fresh and exciting, where the fun the actors have transfers to the screen and the audience. Much like when you see a comedy play on stage where the actors have delivered the lines a hundred times before – as the saying goes, it’s not just what you say but how you say it, so when suddenly one of them decides to mix it up a little and throw a bit of a curve ball delivery to their co-thesps, the obvious pleasure they get from doing so, and of course the enlivened retorts, makes it so much more engaging and pleasurable to watch.

The worst thing about the film would actually have to be the poster chosen for the main advertising campaign as it doesn’t bear witness to any scene in the film. In fact, it’s almost certainly been chosen to play off of the success of ‘Bridesmaids’ (11), something made all the more obvious by the ‘from the producer of Bridesmaids’ that’s splattered over the top of it. Perhaps understandable given its success, though with Bridesmaids the focus was on the comedy first and story second and here the story takes more of a precedence. The film could also have done without the scene which has Violet’s mother scolding and shouting at her whilst holding her sister’s new born baby – not a very nice introduction to the world that, it could easily have been filmed without the child, or they start bickering after they leave the room etc. The situation by the end of the film has also been reversed with Violet seemingly giving up her career in the immediate future in order to be with Tom, but the difference is made by the fact it’s her choice rather than a suggestion from Tom (even though he was also going to propose to her) and the progression of the film suggests both parties will now be happy and move on together, though it would be interesting to see if Violet was so happy with this a few years down the line…

Throughout the narrative periodic funerals of grandparents are edited in, which works well as a sort of pressure gauge on the main relationship but also to subtly and darkly make a deeper point from the stance of the usually neglected or trivialised romcom elderlies. Another constant theme, that of the doughnuts, is interesting – the premise of Violet’s experiment being to say to people in a waiting room there is a box of one day old doughnuts, which she apologises for, but that they will be replaced with new ones shortly; and to see who just eats the old ones, findings from which suggest a direct correlation between people eating the old ones and being ‘screw ups’ in their everyday lives. It’s used as a direct metaphor for relationships throughout, enjoying what’s in front of you instead of waiting for what might never arrive (as Tom points out, quite correctly). But are one day old doughnuts really that bad? What if someone thought ‘you know what, I’ll eat some of these ones now because they’re still pretty much fine, and then there’ll be more to go around for everyone else later’, in a sort of form of self sacrifice. Although this is based on real psychological tests used, both Tom and Violet end up eating stale doughnuts, uniting them forever via sugary bakery products. Red Dragon recently received a bundle of bakery goods that were otherwise going in the bin and neither he nor his friends thought twice before devouring them, admittedly there was no ‘better quality ones will arrive soon’ option in this scenario. Many eateries dispose of perfectly good produce each day because they have to by law, but most of them also forbid their staff from taking them home for fear of someone getting ill and it leading back to them. Red Dragon would like to suggest caveat emptor would be a more sensible approach in these situations, and would lead to less food being wasted, and more doughnuts for all.

Anyone really taken with the film might want to have a look at their blog – tomandviolet.com

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