I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon in reviewing movies. After any given film, critics are more likely to proclaim their love or hate, while the actual ticket buyer’s response is frequently “Eh, ’s all right,” as if they’d just enjoyed a perfectly good but not special hamburger.
This is partly because critics are picky (yes), and partly because we have to see whatever’s on offer. (Picking out and paying for a flick gives you a sense of ownership, which only disappears when you get something you weren’t expecting.) But sometimes critics, too, watch a movie and think, “Eh, ’s all right.” The problem is, that reaction doesn’t make for much of a review.
Hence this overlong introduction to my review of The Five-Year Engagement, which is a perfectly all-right movie. And by “all right,” I do not mean “meh,” as people say on the internet. Directed by Nicholas Stoller and written by Stoller and star Jason Segel (the team behind Forgetting Sarah Marshall), the film is funny and astute. Beginning where many romantic comedies end — with a proposal — it captures all the things that can go wrong with a relationship between the ring and the aisle.
Segel and Emily Blunt play the engaged couple, Tom and Violet, a chef and a psychologist, respectively. Post-proposal, they leave San Francisco and his upscale restaurant job for the University of Michigan, where she hopes to start her own career with a postdoc. Violet quickly settles in, but the only job Tom can find in Ann Arbor is slinging deli coleslaw beside a burly, bearded dude (Brian Posehn) who proclaims himself “a pickle geek.”
That detail may seem irrelevant, but it illustrates what makes The Five-Year Engagement just “all right”: The stuff happening at the margins is consistently more entertaining than the center. Blunt is cute and energetic throughout, and Segel does an endearing sad-sack shtick as Tom sinks into depression. But he’s already played this role a few too many times.
Viewers may find their attention wandering to the supporting cast, familiar to anyone who watches NBC’s Thursday-night lineup. Violet’s sister and her shotgun husband — Alison Brie (of “Community”) and Chris Pratt (of “Parks and Recreation”) — steal most scenes they’re in. I’d happily watch a whole movie about that misbegotten couple, or about Lauren Weedman’s gravel-voiced Chef Sally. Mindy Kaling, Rhys Ifans, Jacki Weaver, Molly Shannon and others pop in to offer their own inspired, improv-style bits.
As a disjointed comedy sampler, the movie shines. But as a whole, it’s about as dramatically compelling as ... a five-year engagement. The films of Judd Apatow (who produced) tend to meander, but Bridesmaids and Knocked Up still had tension at their cores. In Engagement, there’s no real suspense about whether Segel’s character will be dumped, because previous movies have trained us to see him as the good-hearted slacker who eventually gets his life in gear and gets the girl. He is, as we learned last Thanksgiving, a “Muppet of a man,” and who could resist that?
This Hollywood transformation is a touch ironic, because Segel started his career in another Apatow project, the TV series “Freaks and Geeks,” playing a good-hearted slacker who pursues an out-of-his-league girl, wins her, annoys her and becomes something of a stalker. Now there’s the kind of thorny relationship scenario that evokes viewers’ love, hate and painful laughter. (Maybe Segel needs to rediscover his dark side.) Watching Engagement, the most one can say is that Tom and Violet could both do a lot worse than stay together. Eh, ’s all right.