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A group of people sit in a room with a box of stale doughnuts. They’re told to eat if they wish, but fresher doughnuts are only 20 minutes away if they’d like to wait for something better. Will they really come? It’s up to each individual to decide, but needless to say, some think the old doughnuts will suffice, while others hold out for the best doughnut they could conceivably be able to get their hands on.
This scenario is at the heart of Nicolas Stoller’s The Five-Year Engagement. It’s developed by Violet (Emily Blunt), who works as a psychology graduate assistant and has just gotten engaged to Tom (Jason Segel), but it also gets at the heart of the conflict between our two protagonists.
They get happily engaged in San Francisco, surrounded by family and friends, and with promising careers ahead of them. But when Violet is offered a job she can’t refuse in Michigan, their wedding is on hold until they can settle down in their new home. Problems arise, years go by, and a couple grandparents die, but the wedding is as far away as ever. They want to work out their problems before making a commitment, but it’s unclear whether that time—the time when the new doughnuts arrive—will ever come.
The metaphor is apt (though presented a bit heavy-handedly, I’ll admit), and the problems between these two all feel true to life. The problem with Stoller’s film is that it isn’t very funny. The two previous collaborations between Stoller and Segel (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Muppets) are hilarious. This one never rises above clever.
There are a few truly inspired moments. The last 15 minutes are particularly memorable, what with Community‘s Alison Brie (who’s wonderful) doing an all-time great Elmo impression. Parks and Recreation‘s Chris Pratt also gets some great baffoonish material to work with (the whole film, if nothing else, is a great commercial for NBC’s Thursday night comedies, with The Office‘s Mindy Kaling making an appearance). And Jacki Weaver (so great in 2010’s Animal Kingdom) plays Violet’s jaded mother to great effect.
Too often, however, the jokes are overlong or overshadowed by harpy bickering. Although the problems Tom and Violet go through are believable, the way they deal with them is childish. You can’t have one’s cake and eat it too, and Stoller never quite strikes the correct balance between Apatow-style comedy and sincere relationship dramedy.
At least the leads are appealing. With the exception of a bizarre sequence when Tom turns into a mountain man, Segel is unusually restrained. He still bares his buttocks as has become customary, but his standard slimy schtick is ditched in favor of something much more down-to-earth and appealing. Blunt, meanwhile, is as adorable as ever. Violet is selfish, but we understand why Tom would move to Michigan for her. The film is perhaps strongest before their issues begin because they’re a fun pair of people.
As far as the Apatow canon goes, The Five-Year Engagement is far from the most memorable, but it’s not a bad movie: it’s simply unremarkable and too long by 30 minutes, at least. It’s very sweet, but lacks any real substance—just like a doughnut.