We start where most movies end: A happy city-slicker couple pledge to spend the rest of their lives together, as a famous American landmark twinkles behind them.
From then on, Nicholas Stoller's weird, endearingly messy The Five-Year Engagement embarks on an uncharted circular voyage. Its two wistful, determined leads — Emily Blunt as grad student Violet and Jason Segel as sous-chef Tom — are caught in a Sisyphean premarital loop.
That doesn't make the film sound very funny, and honestly it isn't — at least not in the same fall-on-your-face-laughing league as Forgetting Sarah Marshall or the rest of the Apatow Factory crop. But The Five-Year Engagement, with a script co-written by Segel and Stoller, feels poignant and real in a way few raunch comedies are.
What drives the sadness is a universal familiar: the act of sacrificing for someone you love, and the long-term consequences of making those concessions. Violet gets accepted to a graduate psychology program at the University of Michigan, so Tom turns down an offer to run his own San Francisco restaurant, loading up the van and moving to Ann Arbor to become a deli boy and housesitter. And the wedding goes on hold — where it will stay.
A magnificent college town, Ann Arbor carries with it the stigma of lengthy, miserable winters. For Violet, the appeal of academia's lecture halls and grad-student bars gives their new home an Edenic glow. For Tom, it's a snowy exile from real life, and one that offers no real shot at happiness. (Seems a bit unfair to the multitude of real-life chefs working comfortably on the town's Main Street.)
Still, the fact that The Five-Year Engagement even has a palpable setting is a kind of outlier for a film industry that normally doesn't care if its version of the Midwest contains palm trees. Stoller and Segel, bless their hearts, know how to maintain an acute sense of location; much of the fun of Sarah Marshall was seeing Segel's lumpy, lovesick Californian stumble his way through a Hawaii that never really wanted him there. Likewise, here Ann Arbor takes on a great many snow-covered shapes for the couple, most of them hostile: roadblock, wedge, rival. But Tom and Violet are unquestionably there, which makes all the difference in a film that hinges so much on place and the question of whether that place is the right one.
It's a shame the movie fails to harness its cast as well as its setting. Surely an Apatow production could have found more to do with such a roster of funny people. Kevin Hart and Mindy Kaling are barely visible as fellow grad students, and the gifted Blunt herself gets shortchanged in genuine comic opportunities; her lumbering fiance scoops up most of them.
Blunt and the rest are fighting an uphill battle against the film's itchy editing, which cuts numerous sequences before they reach their full potential. (This can't be blamed on a lack of material: Stoller and his crew reportedly had too much footage to work with, even excising an entire filmed subplot about Tom opening his own restaurant.) Nor does the script's ill-informed attempt to explain university psychology research — "If you eat this, you must behave like this!" — do its supposedly intelligent practitioners any favors.
Yet we don't walk away thinking these things. What we think is how profoundly bittersweet it is to leave such a big promise unfulfilled for so long that the unfulfillment itself — and the love that fuels it — becomes part of your identity. When Eugene O'Neill wrote about this in 1923, it was called Strange Interlude, and it was dark existentialism.
It's possible the couple at the heart of The Five-Year Engagement knows their grand experiment is doomed, but that won't stop them from clinging to each other like castaways. "I don't want you to go," Tom tells Violet during a fight. "I just need to be alone, with you here." And improbably, we laugh. Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.