This review originally appeared as a guest post on 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective, a film site in which editor Marcus Gorman and various contributors revisit a movie on the week of its tenth anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual.
When I first saw The Five-Year Engagement back in 2012, my fiancée and I were three weeks out from our own wedding and in the thick of last-minute event planning nonsense (following a much shorter engagement than five years). She took a well-deserved night off in our shared apartment, and I did the same – far away, by myself in a second-run movie theater where I saw this film for a grand total of $3. I even drafted half a solipsistic review about the unenviable position of being in the perfect state of mind and position in life to find a film super-relatable. Then, true to form, I was too busy to finish and post it. I’m relieved that’s the case, because I was riding high on goodwill for Nicholas Stoller‘s previous films, Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek (the former of which held up to 10YA scrutiny a few years back). If I’m being honest now, The Five Year-Engagement is not as good a comedy as either of those, even if Stoller’s understanding of the emotional stakes and reality of a couple putting so much stock into the planning of a single event remains as strong as ever.
That couple is Tom (Jason Segel) and Violet (Emily Blunt), and about the best thing I can say about them is that they’re each very funny in turns (one of only a handful of comedy roles Blunt has done), and their characters noticeably change and grow over the course of the film. Segel, who was most of the way into his run of How I Met Your Mother at this point, seems to be doing his very own speed run of sorts (which, unlike Ryan Reynolds’ version in Definitely, Maybe, does a bit more to justify its premise), shifting his attitude about his impending nuptials in parallel with satisfaction and stability in his own life. Much of the film’s conflict stems from his dissatisfaction with the couple’s life together in Michigan, where Violet is in her dream job, an academic posting in a university psych department, which required Tom to give up his dream job of being a head chef at a fancy restaurant in San Francisco. The script is not at all shy in interrogating the gender dynamics of such an arrangement (which so often goes in the other direction), and after a mere decade, this dilemma feels no less emotionally resonant. One of Tom’s most earnest moments is when he dopily, but honestly, asks Violet if she knows what it’s like to be “the guy in a relationship and not have a job that you’re proud of”. My temptation here is to boast about how much I’ve grown since seeing this the first time. To pretend as if I don’t still possess dumb, arbitrarily gendered notions of what it means to provide for my family, or to act like we no longer live in a political economy which constantly reinforces those notions in every way from wage inequality to the religious right’s unrelenting attacks on reproductive rights and the autonomy and existence of people outside of heteronormative gender roles. But the truth is, society hasn’t changed that much on this front in the past decade, and the fortunes of women have backslid significantly during the pandemic. And even if I’m more capable of interrogating my own gut feeling that cooking weekend breakfast is just such a dad thing for me to do, it’s not as if those sexist ideas have retreated from me in any real way. It’s the sea we swim in. And as Tom finally, cathartically screams: I hate it here.
This movie was honestly a bit of a fucking slog this time – it took me two days to finish. Much of the comedy – of that Apatow-produced sort where you just put a bunch of funny people in a room and let them improvise – landed fine then, but mostly just made me impatient this time. A still-goofy Chris Pratt, a passably British-talking Alison Brie (who gets one of the film’s best scenes, in which she and Violet have an argument using Sesame Street voices) were enjoyable as ever. Professional awkward muffin Brian Posehn delivered the only jokes that were clearly intended to make everyone in the room as uncomfortable as the audience (at one point he lovingly describes Violet as a fuckable Disney princess). Rounding out Professor Winton’s (Rhys Ifans) marshmallow pop-psychology lab were three seasoned comedians: Randall Park, Mindy Kaling, and Kevin Hart. Only the latter’s character still worked for me this time around, because of the movie’s commitment to his experimental obsession with masturbation, and because he finally gets a moment in which he gets to stop being a comedy character and become a bit of a drama character – a nasty one, to boot. A barely-formed Dakota Johnson gets a nasty moment as well – the only moment in which she is a proper character, not a mere 23-year-old object of temptation, and also the one in which she reminded me she was already better than this material at that age.
The romantic rivals are a real problem in this film. Tom gets two co-workers – Audrey (Johnson), whom the script never takes seriously, and a bizarre non-entity of a chef, Margaret (Tracee Chimo), whose sole specific character attribute is some awkward nonsense involving potato salad. For Violet, there’s Professor Winton, and Ifans really did try with this character – Winton seems genuinely conflicted about his attitude toward Violet (his student and subordinate!) both personally and professionally, even as his intellectual brain allows him to spin a coherently self-serving defense of his libertine antics (we’re all running on “caveman software”, you see). But Aldous Snow – Russell Brand in Stoller’s previous two films – this is not. Stoller still seems to fundamentally understand that a romantic rival to the Official Couple needs to be both comically interesting and romantically desirable (something that many rom-coms don’t bother with), but the lack of narrative confidence in this character shines through the script, which resorts to shallow gimmickry like parkour and literal magic tricks to make Winton seem more like a showman and less like a chimera of random comic personas. And we have quite enough of that from his grad students.
All of that said, the movie’s emotional arc is coherent enough – I just found it substantially less affecting this time through. This is a couple whose problem, fundamentally, is that they have an idea of marriage that is all wrapped up in achieving perfection and stability beforehand, as well as the fairytale notion that it’ll all be wine and roses after you say, “I Do”. I’m ten years in with my wife, and I’ll spare you my reflections on the nature of marriage here (head over to my 10YA review of The Kids Are All Right for those), but it’s fair to say that at this point in my life, I find these insights a bit quaint and obvious. Also quaint at this point in the COVID pandemic (which Dr. Fauci told me this week is no longer “full-blown“): putting so much stock into big group event planning. You can’t have a wedding? Who fucking cares. Head down to the courthouse and get it done. I attended my first in-person wedding in two years a few weeks ago, I can tell you, while it was marvelous to make a comeback, it was a lot of work dressing to the 7s (my fashion peak), drinking someone else’s booze, and betting on the future of a love and happiness that I have zero control or genuine understanding about, except for my vague (but sincere!) impression that the couple seems to be good for each other. Love gets compared to multiple stale pastries in this film – a day-old donut, a perfunctory cookie – but the film’s ethos all adds up to “Love the one you’re with,” because you can’t be sure anything else is coming in the future. I can’t even call this cynical. It’s not. It’s a sentiment I’ve seen many versions of – that “The One” is just whomever you happen to be dating when you’re ready to settle down, and they’re hopefully someone you can negotiate a shared life with.
So get on with it if you’re gonna. Some of us have work in the morning.
FilmWonk rating: 5 out of 10