The romantic comedy “The Five-Year Engagement,” starring Emily Blunt and Jason Segel, tackles the messy business of love in a time when commitment can be career-ending for one of the better halves. Since it is mostly told from a fairly evolved guy’s point of view, it sounds so promising, so fresh, you want to root for these kids to get it right — not just the couple, but the filmmakers.
Both have their moments, though not enough to keep the audience, or the couple, engaged for anything close to five years, which this two-hour film can sometimes feel like. There are so many detours taken by director Nicholas Stoller and co-writer Segel in trying to twist the typical rom-com tropes, they derail the movie as often as the wedding plans, shortchanging the smart, special comedy “Engagement” had the potential to be.
Despite the rocky road to romance, the lovebirds at the heart of things are an appealing pair. San Francisco sous chef Tom (Segel) starts this fling with a proposal to psychology grad student Violet (Blunt) on a rooftop garden overlooking the Bay Bridge. Their initial meet-cute moment, at a New Year’s Eve costume party with Tom dressed as a giant pink bunny and Violet as Princess Di, gets played in multiple flashbacks, enough that the mere sight of the bunny begins to inspire “Oh no, not again” dread.
At the engagement party the complications begin in earnest, with the filmmakers throwing everything conceivable, literally and figuratively, in their way. The hurdles designed to test their relationship (and our patience) also provide all the subplots and ancillary roles for this sprawling cast. The two most significant snags come from near — courtesy of Tom’s best friend Alex (Chris Pratt) and Violet’s sister Suzie (Alison Brie); and far — a University of Michigan teaching fellowship, with Ann Arbor about as far as they could get from a San Francisco state of mind.
Before Tom and Violet finally decide whether or not they “do,” there will be experiments with food — from doughnuts to deer meat — problems with their romance, and marriage advice from but not limited to Tom’s still-married parents (Mimi Kennedy and David Paymer), Violet’s long-divorced parents (Jacki Weaver and Jim Piddock), his grandparents, her grandparents, Violet’s professor (Rhys Ifans), her research colleagues (inc/luding Mindy Kaling), some Pakistani chefs, a priest and a rabbi.
As the couple works through their issues, Tom and Violet aren’t the only ones who are conflicted. At times the film plays like farce — a painful crossbow misfire, an improbable parkour action scene in an Ann Arbor alleyway. At other times, such as when Tom’s discontent surfaces, the film shifts to relationship drama in ways that are interesting yet out of sync with the general tone. Cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona”) must have had to scramble to keep up with the mood changes and the one-off comic bits that keep turning up.
Blunt, one of the most consistently excellent actresses around, makes her moments count the most as Violet blossoms and wilts with career success and relationship troubles, sailing through the movie’s many mood swings. At first Segel gets to dig a little deeper than usual exploring Tom’s Renaissance-man side, but before long the character returns to doofus dude-ville, where he tends to reside. Pratt has a couple of scene-stealing moments playing with Alex’s tendency toward the inappropriate in nearly every situation.
In many ways, “Engagement” reflects both the best and worst of Stoller and Segel’s creative collaborations. They have a history that goes back to at least TV’s 2001 series “Undeclared,” one of Judd Apatow’s excellent underachievers, which Stoller wrote for and Segel acted in. Their breakout film, 2008’s"Forgetting Sarah Marshall” (Stoller directed, Segel wrote and starred), introduced the kind of sweetness amid the raunchy riffs that have come to characterize their work.
In last year’s"The Muppets,"which they co-wrote with Segel starring, they went for nostalgic charm along with off-center, rather than off-color, humor and succeeded grandly. But in “Engagement,” they are playing so fast and so loose that things simply get sloppy when a little restraint would have gone a long way to making this a far funnier, fleeter affair.