Wednesday, 19 September 2012

How long has this been going on?

The Five Year Engagement: directed by Nicholas Stoller; written by Nicholas Stoller and Jason Segel

All things being equal, there were few moments in The Five-Year Engagement where I wished for the couple at the helm to remain apart. Alas, this is much more of a backhanded compliment (veering onto an actual insult) than it seems because there were many moments where I did not care if they remained apart. The Five Year Engagement begins with an engagement. I think most of you can imagine what it ends with considering that it spans five years. I’ve never been expressly against films which immediately telegraph their endings to us. In a world of biopics and films which operate in media res how could I? Still, over time The Five Year Engagement becomes a stretch. Burgeoning sous chef and potential psychologist Tom and Violet get engaged after a year of dating. Extenuating circumstances (the pregnancy of her sister, a job opportunity for one, a relocation) move them to put off the wedding until a temporary delay turns into a five year sea of waiting. The film starts promisingly enough and ends on a sweetly kitschy note but so much of the middle comprises moments that play like fillers included only to – marginally – justify this very long engagement. It becomes, then, especially damning for a film when the conceit which its entire 124 minutes rests on seems so ineffectual.

An issue plaguing cinematic romances (comedies and dramas alike) over the last ten years, or so, is the inability to provide a glimpse into the romantic lives of characters dealing with regular issues. In that respect, The Five Year Engagement deserves kudos for attempting to present a standard tale of two normal lovers whose story becomes problematic because of familiar issues. A job offer demands that Violet make a move to a new state uprooting her fiancĂ© and stalling the wedding. That setup, in itself, intrigues, even if not in an essentially comedic way. The issue of what one is willing to sacrifice for love will always be interesting to watch, if impressively mounted, and as the initial move seems to be uncontroversial for both the preparation for the inevitable fallout is assured. Because, inevitably, in any situation where one is forced to make a sacrifice for “love”, resentment sets in.

It’s one thing watching people be frustrating in real life, but it becomes more unendurable on the screen. Much of the middle years of this long engagement see both Violet and Tom engaging in particularly exasperating behaviour. As an adult whose previous scenes indicate a lucid if somewhat pliant male one expects Tom to have the prudence (and gumption) to realise, and confess, how a change in location could be detrimental to his career. Conversely, the generally perceptive Violet is much too wise to NOT realise how much of an issue her success (against Tom’s stagnation) has become. This alone does not damage the film’s base because a cowardly (or selfish) human showing their flaws is not a deal breaker. In fact, so much of this set-up suggests the possibility for a fuller, richer look at romance. Segel and Stoller, though, seem determined to make everything play out as farcical as possible which becomes specifically troubling when there are such serious issues at stake and no potent dramatic OR comedic payoff, but for a half-hearted attempt to sweep all previous issues under the rug at the film’s end.

(Case in point, a not quite throwaway line about one character not wanting children is forgotten towards the end when they both remember how they have previously planned to have “fifty babies” plays out as unusually silly when tonally the middle portion’s dramatic aspirations have not been earned or proven.)

When romance is put on screen it becomes an issue of hurling all the possibly debilitating issues at our couple until they become magically resolved at the finale and by dragging out the romantic payoff five years The Five Year Engagement only highlights the disconnect between its obstacles and its resolution. The film feels like a series of "moments", generally workable (and often funny) on their own but put together only making for something unwieldy. The film itself, generally easy to watch and resolutely focused on being good-natured as possible is not a reprehensible entry in the annals of romantic comedies. It is not humourless and the stars are charming. But it drags. When, in an almost meta-moment, Violet’s sister tells her to “shit or get off the pot” it’s a command which comes none too soon. A five year wait for a wedding is not unheard of, but as much as everyone keeps telling us Tom and Violet are made for each other the film doesn’t justify these claims. So, the audience is left wondering – to continue the metaphor – why the pot is even in the conversation anymore. Tom and Violet shouldn’t be anywhere near the bathroom in the first place, let alone on the pot. It wraps up tidily and humorously but an end doesn’t justify the means.

What Can You Lose? / C

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