Review: The Five-Year Engagement

Spoilers ahead, but minor ones. Most of them are about my feelings.

Disclaimer: I don’t watch movies very often*, so any generalizations I make about Hollywood or movies in general are based on the small sample of movies I’ve seen, as well as things I’ve read or watched about movies I haven’t seen.

I finally saw The Five-Year Engagement, and maybe I can only provide a biased review, since Jason Segel won me over with Forgetting Sarah Marshall and just about everything else that I’ve seen him in, but I feel like I need to say: the guy writes good movies. I have a lot of problems with romantic comedies, but I really enjoyed this one. It went to a darker place than I thought it would, and about half way through I realized I had no idea what to expect, and I liked that, because that’s pretty much how life works. You have all these amazing plans, and sometimes they go well, and sometimes they go horribly wrong, and sometimes even when they go well they screw other things up, and you kind of just have to deal with it. And then you do deal with it, and sometimes you like the outcome, and sometimes the outcome sucks, and sometimes you realize that the outcome is actually just another temporary state, because life actually continues after the credits roll (thank God). I might be reading some of my own life lessons into this movie.

I hate stories that end with epilogues ten years later, showing who the main characters end up marrying (usually someone they knew ten years earlier) as though the story wouldn’t be complete without that piece of information. I hate them because they reinforce the idea that the end result is all that matters, when really it’s the in between moments that we should all focus on**. So I like that The Five-Year Engagement celebrated the in betweens, in love and in other parts of life, like work, friendship, family. It had a satisfying ending, and it left some serious ambiguity. Nothing in the movie is permanent or safe, which is scary, but also refreshing.

As usual, the movie certainly isn’t perfect. It doesn’t pass the Bechdel test, and it really should. Maybe I’m supposed to be impressed because it’s a romantic comedy that focusses mostly on a guy, but I don’t buy it. Guys’ stories get told often enough that telling them in a lady-dominated genre doesn’t count as subversive. We see Tom (Jason Segel) develop in a way that’s only tangentially related to his love life several times; we should get the same scenes about Violet (Emily Blunt). Instead, all of her important realizations have to do with who she wants to be with.

The movie probably does better than most Hollywood romantic comedies about white people in terms of representing people of colour, but that’s mostly because Hollywood usually does a super shitty job of that. There are a few non-white characters with names and personalities who actually contribute some to the story, and they only come off a little bit like stereotypes. But I’m not giving out any gold stars for that, even if it is a step in the right direction. All of the primary characters (and most of the secondary ones) are white, and that could have been changed very easily.

I did like all of the main characters, though. Suzie (Alison Brie) and Alex (Chris Pratt), who came off as an uptight, lonely cliché and a boring douchebro respectively at the beginning of the movie, very quickly turned into real human beings that I could both resent and have a soft spot for. Tom went, believably, to a really bad place, and I felt for him the entire time, but I also wanted to slap him and tell him to pull himself together and stop acting like an asshole. And I really liked Violet all through the movie, both when she tried as hard as she could to make things work with Tom and when she got fed up with his crap and put herself first. I think I saw Jason Segel say in some interview that when he writes women, he writes them as though he would play them, so that he ends up writing people, not girls. That’s probably a good philosophy to have, since movies about people are more interesting than movies about gender roles. And I actually believe it, at least for this movie and for Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Just like with Sarah Marshall, I think it would be really easy to write Violet as self-centred or high maintenance, always spoiling the fun of her well-meaning but sometimes clueless boyfriend with her need to have a job she likes, and for the moral of the story to be that she just needs to lighten up and let Tom just be himself. Instead, she’s a highly sympathetic character, and when she fights with Tom, you can see quite clearly how both of them have very valid points, but are also kind of in the wrong. One of the main problems I have with romantic comedies is that I frequently find myself taken out of the story because of the silly and unreasonable way that the main woman is written, and it was nice not to have that happen.

So, I’d recommend the movie. It’s funny and sweet and it challenges some of the problematic aspects of most romantic comedies. I think it’s helping to pave the way for other big budget movies to be better.

*The ratio of movies to other things on this blog does not at all reflect the ratio of movies to other things in my life.

**I especially hate young adult stories with those endings, because we should not feed those harmful messages to teenagers. (I’m glaring at Harry Potter and The Hunger Games right now.)