The Cult of Judd Apatow needs to learn that sometimes you have to cut a scene even if it’s funny. The refusal to learn this lesson has resulted in movies where every scene will get some laughs, but the pacing falls into a rut. The 40-Year-Old Virgin managed to escape this fate, but writer-director Nicholas Stoller has repeatedly fallen prey to the belief that he can sacrifice pacing for a few more jokes. It happened in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, it happened in Get Him to the Greek, and it happens in his new film, The Five-Year Engagement. Apatow has produced all of Stoller’s films and never thrown up a stop sign. The Five-Year Engagement may be Stoller’s biggest offender to date as the wonderful performances and great humor are constantly at war with a narrative that struggles to move forward even when it’s jumping ahead in time.
The Five-Year Engagement starts off with a clever bit where Tom (Jason Segel, who also co-wrote the movie) is constantly stalled in his attempt to propose to his girlfriend, Violet (Emily Blunt). It’s a cute, funny opening that slyly foreshadows how the characters will be delayed in their path to the altar. Violet accepts his proposal, and the two begin planning the wedding, but their engagement takes a hard turn when Violet gets accepted into the psychology department at the University of Michigan, which requires Tom to leave his successful job working as a chef in San Francisco at a high-end restaurant. The couple heads to Michigan where Violet finds fulfillment in her new position, and Tom becomes increasingly miserable when he can only get a job working at a sandwich shop, and the only recreational activity is deer hunting.
If The Five-Year Engagement was being judged solely on the quality of being able to generate laughs, it would be a home-run. Segel and Blunt have amazing chemistry, and it’s wonderful to see Blunt break out of her droll comic persona to deliver a joyful, silly performance. The leading couple is only overshadowed by the film-stealing Alison Brie and Chris Pratt, who play Violet’s sister Suzie and Tom’s best friend Alex, respectively. Fans of Community and Parks and Recreation are already well aware of the astounding comic talents of these two actors, and they easily net the movie’s biggest laughs. I would happily pay money right now for the promise of seeing a spin-off featuring Suzie and Alex.
While the movie is filled with satellite characters (Suzie and Alex are only in a fraction of the film, sadly), the focus is always on Tom and Violet’s increasingly strained relationship. As the movie progresses, Stoller is faced with the mounting challenge of finding a way to keep the film funny as the story becomes more depressing. We know we’re watching something doomed because Violet loves her job and Tom absolutely hates living in Michigan. Getting laughs out of every scene helps counteract the sadness, but eventually we can’t escape watching Jason Segel be miserable for over a quarter of the movie’s runtime.
There’s no prescript for how long a comedy must run, but they can rarely hold the runtime of a drama. Comedies tend to be light and they’re quicker to the reach the point where the length of the story doesn’t support the weight. Stoller has to face this problem not only in terms of the literal runtime, but also in terms of the film’s narrative. Even though this is a five-year engagement, and we’re meant to feel how much can change over that time span, Stoller never finds a way to organically bring it together. There are no markers to tell us how much time has passed, which is probably an attempt to show us how time has gotten away from Tom and Violet. However, it makes the film feel more like a series of sketches rather than a complete story. There are enough thin threads to tie everything together, but more often than not, the majority of the scenes seem to revolve around, “Wouldn’t it be crazy if…” It’s how we get scenes like Tom becoming a crazy deer hunter who has reached the point where he’s making mugs out of deer hooves.
But what the Apatow model has truly wrought is the inability to stop a scene. In the mold of Judd Apatow’s movies, the jokes are more important than pacing, and that means giving improvisation free reign. It’s not simply a matter of letting actors ad-lib their lines. It’s a full embrace of improvisation’s, “Yes, and…” mentality. For Stoller, his scenes can keep going as long as another character has something to add. Sure, it’s funny to watch Violet’s peers recite their crazy ideas for an experiment, and it’s amusing to see supporting characters play off each other. However, brevity is the soul of wit, and most improvised scenes will never come close to touching the brilliance or originality of the “You know how I know you’re gay?” back-and-forth from 40-Year-Old Virgin.
The Five-Year Engagement is funny now, but it would still be funny if it were twenty minutes shorter. Stoller labors under the impression that because most of the jokes are funny, they should all be in the movie. It’s a gambit that can pay off if the audience is laughing so hard that they lose track of time, but it’s a tall order to deliver non-stop hilarity for two hours. And the moment that there’s a lull or a joke doesn’t quite work, the energy is sucked out of the picture. Even when it comes to comedy, you can have too much of a good thing.