There’s a near-fatal overload of ideas bouncing around in the hulking frame of Nick Stoller’s The Five-Year Engagement, his follow-up to 2010’s Get Him to the Greek. Primarily a comedy, the film examines not simply marriage—as the title dictates—but the reversing and alteration of gender roles in modern relationships, which I admit sounds high-minded on paper. Make no mistake, The Five-Year Engagement is anything but; the film operates in the very mien we’ve come to expect from comedy funded by and originating from the Judd Apatow camp, which means anyone with an aversion to genital jokes, slacker humor, and wisecracks pertaining to bodily functions should probably stay away. For the rest of us, Stoller has produced another solid, vulgarly honest romantic comedy, and a fine example of the importance of editing.
The Five-Year Engagement revolves around Tom (Jason Segel) and Violet (Emily Blunt), a young couple in San Francisco who we meet as the former proposes to the latter. Plot balloons to massive proportions from there; Violet’s career leads the couple to Michigan, where Tom struggles and falters and fails while Violet thrives and succeeds. Caught in between? Their nuptials, which continue to be delayed and re-planned as their ever-changing circumstances dictate. So, naturally, their story becomes one of survival and questions are raised over how much more their relationship can withstand.
As with Stoller’s breakout hit, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Engagement is, for lack of a kinder word, shapeless. This isn’t meant pejoratively; it’s just that Engagement has a lot of ground to cover and actively chooses to be character-driven rather than plot-driven. Yes, there’s an end-game here, but Engagement doesn’t trouble itself by taking a point-by-point approach to reaching that destination. The film meanders and stretches its legs out, fully aware of its destination but in utterly no hurry to get there with speed, being far more concerned with the relationships we develop with its principals (as well as the supporting players, most of all Community‘s Alison Brie and Parks and Recreation’s Chris Pratt).
And frankly, that emphasis on Tom and Violet over a linear, point-by-point sequence of events constitutes one of the film’s greatest strengths; after all when your leads are as overwhelmingly gifted as Segel and Blunt it’s in the best interest of your production to showcase their talents and personalities as much as possible. I’d have never pegged Blunt as a comedic actress, but as Violet she’s a revelation. Blunt’s not a stranger to humor, mind—she did have a chuckle-worthy supporting turn in The Devil Wears Prada—but she’s never been at the forefront of the comedy before. Unsurprisingly, she’s a natural; she knows how to deliver a punchline as adeptly as any of her co-stars, even veteran cinematic nice guy Segel, with whom she shares warm, genuine, intoxicating chemistry. If Engagement only has one thing to recommend it, it’s the screen relationship they build together here.
Which isn’t to say the film only has one praise-worthy element– it pointedly does not– but I think the best the film has to offer very nearly ends up being swallowed by its lesser merits. Getting more specific, holey moley is Engagement overlong. There’s nothing wrong with taking the appropriate amount of time to tell a story, even when that means a film ends up clocking in at over two hours, but unlike Stoller’s outstanding Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Five-Year Engagement doesn’t contain only what’s necessary*. There’s a lot of fat here. Whatever amount you have in mind now, you’re off-base; it’s more than that. Engagement goes from being simply flabby to outright bloated by the halfway point, and by the time we get to the expected climax we’ve gone from a three-act structure to a four-act structure that’s weighed down by an overabundance of footage that adds nothing to the overall picture.
The good news is that in spite of all of the extra poundage Stoller saddles his film with, Engagement remains very much afloat from start to finish. What’s more, the film is incredibly funny, and the flavor of its humor differs from line to line; there’s plenty of delightfully childish and bawdy humor here, but there’s also an emphasis on mining laughter from whip-fast dialogue exchanges and expression and just honest-to-goodness acting (though that’s usually acting in the name of acting silly). Your mileage, again, will vary depending on how you like your comedy, but those without prejudices toward the crass should find themselves chuckling loudly throughout Engagement– though after a point, the film becomes so exhausting that jokes we might normally laugh at just elicit silence.
Which just brings us back to the film’s desperate need for one sharp, dedicated session in the editing bay. I like the extra stuff as much as the next guy– who isn’t a fan of gravy?– but too much of a good thing is still too much. Delivered to us as a leaner, more focused picture, Engagement, with its genuine sweetness and raucously lewd humor, could easily have rivaled Forgetting Sarah Marshall as the cream of the crop among Stoller’s other efforts as a writer and a director. But all of his ideas end up getting the better of both him and his film. It’s clear that Stoller, as well as Segel– Stoller’s frequent collaborator– have a whole lot that they want to commit to celluloid, from punchlines to emotional beats, but there just isn’t room for everything in a movie that wants to span five years in two hours.
*I’m willing to admit that some of the material in Forgetting Sarah Marshall isn’t essential, but it’s so good– and does nothing to disrupt the progression of the rest of the film– that I can forgive it much more easily.