Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Five-Year Engagement (2012) – Review

Review: The Five-Year Engagement is a different kind of romantic comedy, as it tries to present much more authentic characters and situations while also commenting on the expectations of couples who have grown up with the myth precipitated by typical romantic comedies. In its humor, it is both grounded and absurd (sometimes at the same time). The film is about Tom and Violet, a couple who gets engaged but life keeps getting in the way of them actually getting married and (as the title suggests), their engagement is dragged out, with each questioning whether they really are right for each other and should get married. Writer-star Jason Segel and writer-director Nicholas Stoller have structured the film in a much different fashion than almost any other in the genre, allowing the characters to be fleshed out much more than the genre usually has time for. While there is a loose overarching three act structure, Stoller and Segel present the film in a more episodic manner detailing the evolution of Tom and Violet’s relationship at different points in time – the happiness and love, but also the frustration and anxiety. The structure goes in the face of everything the audience typically expects from a romantic comedy, which is usually mapped out so specifically that the viewer knows what to expect with each plot point before even watching the film. This is not the case at all with The Five-Year Engagement (I honestly did not know if they would stay together or not, which is amazing given how overly predictable rom-coms are). In fact, the film begins where most romantic comedies end – with two people deciding they are perfect for each other, utterly in love and want to be together forever. It tells the story of what happens after that – sometimes happy, sometimes sad, a little messy, and a lot of work. Stoller and Segel do a wonderful job with the principal characters (they reportedly revamped each character with the actor set to play them, once cast), as they feel much more authentic and their drama more real than anything viewers typically see in the genre. They are very relatable and the viewer cares about them as a result. This authenticity is the most charming aspect (and maybe the best part) of the film, as it is so refreshing, charting the challenge and chaos that is life and love. In many ways, the film is also looking at the myth that romantic comedies have championed pertaining to relationships and finding ‘true love’, pulling it down and retorting with a much more accurate and unveiled account of what relationships are like. But, this is a romantic comedy all the same after all, and as such is still infused with those zany somewhat over-the-top sequences, goofy supporting characters and a few other genre mainstays that the genre has always demanded (especially in the third act) – and really these genre conventions are to an extent part of the fun and appeal. Overall, however, the film breathes new life into a genre that has perpetually turned out generic and abject emotionally staged and false narratives for some time now (with the odd great film – like Stoller and Segel’s last rom-com Forgetting Sarah Marshall). Humor wise, this film is funny, but odd. The narrative is mostly driven by dramatic and emotional moments, and characters that are struggling. However, this is a comedy, and thus is inundated with gags, many of which are very funny. The best humor in the film generates from the situations and characters organically, while the stuff, while still mostly funny, that does not work quite as well is of a more absurdist nature (and I say absurdist because this is a film steeped in reality and yet there are a few moments that are built around jokes that seem out there, like the dinner between Tom, Violet and Violet’s sister and her husband in which they are eating deer, using deer-bone utensils – it is almost like an absurdist dramatization of how Tom feels, as he is very unhappy at the point the scene takes place in the narrative, yet happening in reality). Whether using somewhat inane humor as a projection of internal torment juxtaposed to the reality the film mostly features was a narrative choice or not is unknown, but these gags sort of stick out as they seem to not be quite in the right film, though (again) they are still funny, and even maybe work a little. As a comedy, the film is very funny mixing crude humor (both sight gags and situational comedy) with typical joke areas found in the genre. Like most Judd Apatow productions, The Five-Year Engagement both has heart and R-rated humor. And like many of his produced films, it goes beyond the typical overly generic genre dynamics and presents a fresh take (in this case in terms of presenting real characters and drama).

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Nicholas Stoller and Jason Segel have now made three films together (four, if you count Get Him to the Greek, which Segel co-produced and wrote songs for but was not too creatively involved in), the other two being Forgetting Sarah Marshall and The Muppets. They make a good team, especially with their romantic comedies bringing a great sense of humor and relatable characters. I look forward to their next entry in the genre. Composer Michael Andrews scores the film well, matching the light and more dramatic tones. Cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe’s work is fairly standard for the genre, but that being said this is one of the better shot and visually beautiful films within the genre. Julie Berghoff’s production design is great, and she seems to have some fun with the juxtaposition of San Francisco and Ann Arbor as well. The evolution of the set design accentuates where the characters are in the narrative. As with most romantic comedies, much of this film’s success comes down to its characters and performances. Among the actors with small bit parts, Jacki Weaver, Lauren Weedman, Mindy Kaling, Randall Park, and Chris Parnell stand out. Rhys Ifans and Dakota Johnson are also good in supporting roles. However, Chris Pratt and Alison Brie almost steal (if not do steal) the film. Pratt, playing a more aware version of his Parks and Recreation character, has a lot of funny stuff; and Brie is brilliant as Violet’s impulsive and emotionally eruptive sister (she has some of the best stuff in the film – from her toast at the engagement party to her Elmo and Cookie Monster talk with Violet). Jason Segel has his character down pat – a lovable nice, sometimes awkward guy who seemingly could not be mean even if he tried. Here, Segel has a lot of emotional drama to play and does so very well, while still making the audience laugh. Emily Blunt is as good at comedy as she is at drama. In this film she gets to do some of both, and is fantastic on both accounts.

Summary & score: The Five-Year Engagement is a romantic comedy that dares to be different and authentic in its portrayal of love and life. 8/10

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