The first thing that needs to be said about “The Five-Year Engagement” is that it’s funny. The sense of humor is extraordinarily well-developed, from sight gags to puns to innuendos to comical situations to brazen dialogue to cartoon-character imitations to scatological banter. OK, if you’re easily offended by what you would consider “trash talk,” then don’t go. There are some minor characters who hardly do anything except cuss, and the joke is that they are barely able to express themselves any other way. And some of the little skits within the movie are nothing short of eye-popping, jaw-dropping hilarious. But it has its serious side, also, which is how it doesn’t degenerate into pure silliness. And though the story occasionally drags, the narrative definitely pulls the screenplay.
Tom Solomon (Jason Segel) and Violet Barnes (Emily Blunt) met at a New Year’s Eve party, where she was dressed as Princess Di and he was a big bunny. That pretty well sums up their characters, too: he is this big ol’ softie who’s an aspiring chef. He doesn’t seem to care very much about sports, we never see him on a computer, he doesn’t seem to do handyman stuff around the house or yard work, or have any creative hobbies. He does have a best buddy, Alex (Chris Pratt), who’s a bit of a charming goof, and works in the same kitchen under a Nazi-like female chief chef who harasses everyone equally. Mostly, Tom is completely in love with Violet, and proposes to her with a ruby ring because he knows she’s concerned about the way the “blood diamonds” are mined in Africa. And she loves him for his considerateness.
But our “princess” Vi, who’s almost always beautiful and charming and hardly ever caught in a personally compromising situation (unlike Tom, who’s Mr. Everyman with a boyish enthusiasm), now has a career dilemma. She’s been a doctoral student in psychology, but now has been accepted into a prestigious post-doctoral program at Michigan, which is a long way from San Francisco, in more ways than one. Our Mr. Supportive Fiancé, Tom, says he can be a chef anywhere, no problem, they’ll just move and postpone their wedding plans, and she loves him for his flexibility, but is concerned that he might wind up resenting playing “second fiddle” in his own career, which happened in her own family, and, unfortunately, will happen to them as well.
The move to Michigan is difficult for Tom. There are no openings in the finer restaurants, so he winds up laboring uncreatively in a local sandwich shop. Violet, on the other hand, loves her new program, and her mentor professor, Winton (Rhys Ifans, brilliant once again), who, it turns out, has more than a professional interest in her. But she tries to ignore his obvious fawning over her, assuming that he’s impressed with her academic acumen. Right.
When Violet is offered the coveted extension of the post-doctoral fellowship, together with a tenure-track assistant professorship, she is beyond ecstatic. But Tom cannot help but be disappointed at the prospect of putting his life on hold even longer, except now he finds it difficult no matter what he tries to do. He can’t live with her and he can’t live without her. She wants him to be happy, but she doesn’t want to give up all she has worked hard for and feels she deserves. The classic modern working-couple dilemma. And just to add some spice to the punch bowl, his family is American and Jewish, and hers is British and Christian, but both families pressure them to get married before all the grandparents die off (too late).
Will our star-crossed couple ever figure out a way to be together in one place, happily? Well, that’s the drama. The rest is all poking clever fun at themselves along the way. If you can’t find something funny in this one, you sense of humor may need some development.
Ronald P. Salfen is interim pastor at St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.