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No Laughing Matter

The ingredients are there, but the experiment fizzles.

May 14, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 33 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
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The Five-Year Engagement is the latest presentation from the orbit of Judd Apatow, the comedy mastermind whose particular genius is to stuff his movies to the gills with funny people doing funny things. This may seem like an obvious thing to do, but most movie stars don’t like being upstaged by secondary performers and insist on keeping the best lines and best pieces of business for themselves, and so lighthearted fare often feels underpopulated and claustrophobically focused on the couple at the center.

Still from the movie

Emily Blunt, Jason Segel

Newscom

Not so in Apatow’s films. Like the movies he writes and directs himself (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Funny People) and the ones he produces (Superbad, Bridesmaids), The Five-Year Engagement is crammed with sprightly character bits, scenes that do absolutely nothing to advance the plot but make you howl with laughter, and actors you’ve never seen or noticed before knocking your socks off with their improvisatory talents.

An Apatow movie is often too long, but that’s because he and his fellow filmmakers allow scenes to build slowly to achieve the maximum comic impact. That is what happens in the high points of The Five-Year Engagement, which include a vapid young woman viciously insulting the man breaking up with her and then telling him he should leave “before I say nasty things”; two sisters having an argument in front of a small child in which one talks like Elmo and the other like the Cookie Monster; and a crazy-eyed surfer-dude groom serenading his bride with a langorous, slow, beautiful ballad in letter-perfect Spanish.

If the movie’s main story had been equal to all this, The Five-Year Engagement would have been a classic. Sadly, the title relationship is distressingly dull, and it is the heart of the action. Tom, a chef, and Violet, an academic psychologist, plight each other’s troth in the movie’s opening scene and then spend the rest of it not getting married. If they were being prevented from doing so as a result of farcical intrusions on their happiness, or wild plot gyrations, their problems might have remained of some interest. But the central conflict between them is this: Violet gets a fellowship at the University of Michigan.

This has to be the most tedious complication in the history of comedy. Clearly, director/cowriter Nicholas Stoller doesn’t think so, since he based The Five-Year Engagement on his own engagement and marriage story—but then, we are never good judges of our own anecdotes, are we?

In other hands, the problems that develop between Tom and Violet—he puts his career on hold and ends up making sandwiches at the legendary Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, she stays in Michigan longer than she told him she would, and they begin to resent each other—might have been used to present a fresh way-we-live-now story about romantic egalitarianism. But Tom and Violet are portrayed with almost relentless kindness—they’re both lovely, well-meaning, and decent people who would never hurt a fly. Any damage they do to each other is pretty much unintentional. Thus there is no real conflict, and one grows indifferent to the proceedings.

That’s also due to something beyond anyone’s capacity to repair, which is that the two stars, Jason Segel (who also cowrote) and Emily Blunt, have no chemistry whatsoever. This doesn’t seem to be their fault. Segel was great at playing a lovelorn sap in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and lit up the screen with costar Mila Kunis. Blunt was enchanting as a love interest in The Adjustment Bureau and funny as a mean girl in The Devil Wears Prada

Together they are as alluring as the rice pudding served on a hospital tray. Their lack of spark shows through even in the trailers and television commercials, which helps explain why The Five-Year Engagement did so poorly at the box office its first weekend. That will surely hasten its departure from theaters, which is too bad, because the inspired bits really do make The Five-Year Engagement well worth your time. In particular, two TV performers—Alison Brie of Community and Chris Pratt of Parks and Recreation—are sensational as a couple of one-night-standers who suddenly go bourgeois-married-with-children and outdistance Tom and Violet in the domesticity department. 

They make you wish you were watching The Five-Year Anniversary, starring them, instead.

John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.

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