Starring Segel as Tom and Emily Blunt as his girlfriend Violet, the romantic comedy (or just comedy, depending on the moment) “The Five-Year Engagement” begins where most rom-coms end as Tom and Violet get engaged. This, it turns out, a few humorous problems aside, is the easy part. The difficult part is actually making a wedding happen, and the picture is one successive stumble after another on the long, long walk down the aisle. An aisle that sometimes seems so far on the horizon it’s become invisible.
Refreshingly set in two cities that don’t feel played out on screen (San Francisco and a Michigan college town, respectively), Tom and Violet’s life is fully on track in the Bay Area. Tom is a very successful sous-chef in a swanky downtown restaurant and Violet is a psychology major who’s about to get some good news. Only good fortune for her means a serious fork in the road for the couple. Follow her dream of potential tenure in snowy, cold Ann Arbor or stay by her man’s side in SF. Fortunately for her, she doesn’t have to decide as the gallant and understanding Tom does the noble thing and chooses to give up his job and move up north to support his girl, assuming he can cook anywhere and thus continue his career in Michigan. Left behind are Tom’s best friend, the obnoxious oaf Alex (a scene-stealing Chris Pratt) who has managed to inexplicably impregnate and marry Suzie (Alison Brie), Violet’s cute and successful sister who should be miles out of this guy’s league. Alex and Suzie’s impossibly wonderful wedding sets up the first of many unrealistic expectations for Tom and Violet’s nuptial plans (leading to a rather hilarious sequence and the musical tangent in the film that nods to Pedro Almodovar’s “Talk To Her”).
Michigan is where the couple’s trouble starts to brew. While Violet’s post-graduate studies take off, Tom’s career stops dead in its tracks. Five star restaurants are either non-existent and or every position is booked solid. Instead, the would-be chef has to slum it in a sandwich shop, the patrons of which are generally drunken college kids and bearded woolly men who drop by after a football game. And the shifting dichotomy only gets worse. Violet adores her professor (Rhys Ifans) and the colorful and kooky co-students (played by Mindy Kaling, Randall Park and Kevin Hart) and Tom is forced to hang out with either the emasculated Bill (a rather hysterical Chris Parnell), a stay-at-home father who spends far too much time knitting sweaters, or Tarquin (Brian Posehn), the alcoholic pickling-aficionado co-worker with the tendency to blurt out inappropriate comments always at inopportune times. So as one half of the couple blossoms, and the other idles to the point of complete stasis, and resentment begins to settle in like that unfortunate moment in an relationship when the bloom has fallen off the rose and all that’s left are dried-up petals of reality.
However, as much farcical disbelief takes place in Ann Arbor -- much of it seemingly borne out of the "try anything" improvisatory school of comedy that seems to dominate these days with mixed results -- Stoller and Segel know how to land well and steer this rambling and semi-undisciplined comedy into a winning, endearing final act of endearing that skids just outside the lines of touchstones like "When Harry Met Sally."
Additional points are rewarded for well-thought-out narrative gags. Segel’s lumberjack routine does seem out of place initially, but it is engendered out of his character’s genuine frustration, depression and apathy. People do funny things when saddled with dead-end tasks and much of this circumbendibus derives from the fact that the former breadwinning man is withering away. Similarly, what the film says about best laid plans is rather clever. While the carefully thought-out and planned courtship of Tom and Violet falls into decay, it’s Alex and Suzie’s comically impromptu and accidental union that flourishes.
While not the most serious romantic comedy of all time "The Five-Year Engagement" and its underpinnings ring extremely true and belie its sometimes goofy and charming veneer. Underneath all the jokes about cooking (references to "Ratatouille"), misshapen knitted sweaters and masculinity (or lack thereof) lies a genuinely affecting picture about the all-too-real complications and expectations of trying to tie the knot while negotiating careers, complex emotional baggage and family obligations. And for that "The Five-Year Engagement" should score a winning appreciation from audiences that want a hearty laugh, a tearful happy smile and some substantive meat on the end of their charming rom com. [B+]