The Five-Year Engagement takes on established generic conventions but turns others on their head to form a surprisingly funny, hearty and believable film
Romantic comedy is a difficult genre to crack – when it works it’s truly great but more often than not scripts wind up as generic drivel, full of clichés and tired dialogue. Worst of all, the intended ‘feel-good factor’ misses the mark as the audience is unable to relate to the two-dimensional characters and their unlikely lives and careers. Yes, the successful romantic comedy is a rare and precious thing.
So I was nervous when I sat down to watch The Five-Year Engagement. Produced by Judd Apatow and starring Jason Segel and Emily Blunt, the Hollywood film had a promising start, but would the story ring true?
The film begins at a place where most other rom-coms finish – with a couple getting engaged and ready to start their lives together. But, of course, a series of obstacles stands in the way of their planned trip down the aisle, most crucially, the pair wanting everything in their lives to be perfect. The challenges start when the couple, Tom (Segel) and Violet (Blunt), move from the sunny climes of San Francisco to snowy Michigan; a result of Violet winning a postdoctoral fellowship to study psychology. While Violet happily settles into her new academic life, Tom is left mourning the loss of his prestigious career as a head chef.
It’s worth noting that the frustration Tom feels at his loss of status is something that, historically, women have long experienced. Indeed, gender roles prove to be an interesting theme throughout the film. As Tom’s career plays second fiddle to his fiancé’s and he becomes chief wedding-planner, his male ego suffers quite a bashing. At the same time, he takes on one of the most macho of sports – animal hunting. This mixture of activities makes for some more interesting gender characterisation, not to mention hilarious moments when a blood-thirsty shooting is followed by the complimenting of a self-knitted jumper. In addition, a potentially comical but actually very sad moment is when Tom feigns an orgasm, retorting, “Men can fake it too… hurts doesn’t it?” Tom gradually turns from a confident, happy person to someone obsessive and unhinged. And his destructive descent is aptly shown when, on Tom leaving his crossbow on the kitchen table, Violet gets accidentally shot in the leg.
What’s compelling throughout this is that Tom retains a sensitivity and gentleness, determined to be a supportive boyfriend despite his frustration. His love seemingly endures, quietly changing and shifting as his psyche darkens. Meanwhile, Violet is out pursuing her career goals, trying to put any guilt over Tom to the back of her mind.
The unraveling of the relationship happens slowly but surely. It’s well acted by Segel whose slightly oversized frame seems to gradually crumple, with a series of sad glances tugging at the audience’s heartstrings. Blunt is also convincing as the ambitious yet conflicted partner, although is perhaps sometimes too controlled and polished in her portrayal. The film, however, drags towards the end where a climax is reached only to be followed by an unexpectedly long final stretch. And of course, the title tells us there will be five long years to endure before any possibility of the ultimate goal.
Arguably, what keeps the viewer hooked is that while the ending is inevitable, it’s far from predictable; we may guess at what happens but we don’t know the journey taken to get there. And that’s because the film seems very life-like. The story reflects the fact that even if both partners do all the right things to make a relationship work, the circumstances of life will always play a part in shaping their future. Ultimately, the film is about the hardship of compromise – that thing that always rears its ugly head. When Tom wonders if he’d be better off going back to San Francisco alone, he’s asking himself how much value he places on self-preservation versus building a life with his partner. How much is love worth? And how do you know when to let it go if it’s not working?
Such questions are what make the film ring true. They are things we’ll most likely all ask ourselves at some point in our lives. And the characters are interesting and human enough – in their gender roles and otherwise – to persuade us of their believability. Is there a feel-good factor? Arguably there is. While love is shown to be undeniably fragile, it is also portrayed as something of real complexity and endurance.
The Five-Year Engagement was released on UK DVD on 29 October 2012 and is available to buy now.
Image from: http://notsoserious-fashion.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/five-year-engagement.html
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