With his directorial offerings to date – Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek – Nicholas Stoller has managed to effortlessly merge larger-than-life premises and outrageous humour with genuine heart. His third outing, The Five-Year Engagement, is his densest, most ambitious work to date, and certainly another home run for the gifted young filmmaker.
As made-for-each-other couple Tom (Jason Segel) and Violet (Emily Blunt) get engaged and begin to navigate the minefield of wedding planning, we are at first drawn in by their charm. Blunt, a luminous screen presence, is fast becoming one of the finest bankable female comics, and beside the ever-reliable Segel, she is in like-minded company to say the least. The outstanding chemistry between the two, placed amid a believable real-life issue, is truly what sustains things in light of a potentially punishing runtime.
When Violet receives an invitation to study a post-doctorate in Psychology at the University of Michigan, the pair are forced to pack up shop and put their wedding plans on hold. Tom, leaving behind what would have been a promotion in his chef career, is happy at first, though cracks soon begin to emerge and permeate through to their relationship. What at a core level any drama of this sort needs to do is deal with its problems in a relatable way, but Stoller goes one further, nimbly managing to do so with a mature attitude while not being fearful of deriving humour from these situations too.
While it rattles out the hilarious one-liners with a schooled efficiency, what really surprises here is its dramatic gravity, capturing the rarest of things on screen - the essence of a real relationship. Inequality issues are prevalent from the moment the pair moves away; nothing is on an even keel, and this quite rightly is upsetting for the underachieving Tom. I expect this may prove painfully reminiscent for many viewers – the grand, reluctant sacrifices we often make for a partner.
From here, the pic jumps off to ably examine gender roles; Tom feels emasculated that his own career founders while his wife-to-be’s is taking off, and in speaking to other men, the expectation appears to be simply to settle into it. Conversely, it is the woman here who uncommonly has to battle pre-wedding jitters; the typical dynamic is inverted into something more refreshing and current – it feels completely in touch with the modern woman’s existential question.
With all these problems, it would be very easy for Stoller to dig his heels in and field out a truthfully bleak riff on the contemporary notions of marriage, but he balances his aspirations meticulously. Comedy and drama co-exist in a marriage that is itself rather special; one rarely ends up cancelling out the other. It’s the sublime supporting cast who unquestionably deserve a wealth of the credit; Chris Pratt – a potential star in the wings – is hilarious as Tom’s troublesome best friend Alex, while Alison Brie, pulling off an outstanding Elmo impression at one point, is great fun as Violet’s sister. It’s also nice to see the likes of Jacki Weaver (as Violet’s mother) and Rhys Ifans (Violet’s boss) taking on Hollywood tooth-and-nail.
The second half is an altogether darker affair, delving into the mistakes both sides can make, but it keeps an uncharacteristically firm finger on the pulse at most all times. Naturalistic dialogue and smart psychology propel the drama, suggesting that a pragmatic approach to relationships and indeed, to life, is what will make you happy. Nothing is perfect, but in weathering the storm together, people can draw tremendous, unknown strength.
We want it to work out for these guys, and though the tail-end has a taste of the theatrical that feels a tad out of step with the hitherto realist tone, we are inclined to go with it because Stoller and his fab cast have earned so much goodwill over the preceding two hours. At 123-minutes, it is a demanding sit for a rom-com, but the writer-director’s penchant for melding uproarious laughs with real emotion sees him through with flying colours.
This is a grown-up rom-com that incredibly doesn’t outstay its welcome despite a meaty runtime, because Blunt and Segel create charming characters who are easy to root for.
The Five-Year Engagement is in cinemas now.