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A 'Five-Year Engagement' Leaves A Bitter Taste

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There are many dramas and comedies in which career trajectories take couples to different corners of the country, complicating or ending romantic relationships. There will be many more, at least until someone invents a teleportation machine. What's different about each work is how the problem gets interpreted.

In The Five-Year Engagement, a new mating comedy from the Judd Apatow factory, the interpretation is reactionary, told largely from the perspective of a man victimized by feminism. Up-and-coming chef Tom, played by Jason Segel, and British social psychology grad student Violet, played by Emily Blunt, become engaged as fireworks erupt over San Francisco Bay. The coming nuptials are celebrated at a country inn with the usual nutty family toasts; Violet searches for a wedding venue; and then, suddenly, comes news that she's been accepted into a prestigious program at the University of Michigan. Drinking heavily to ease her jitters, she tells Tom her mother gave up a career to follow her father — who later took up with a 20-something woman. Violet doesn't want that to happen to her. Tom, the menschiest top chef ever, swallows hard and says, "Let's both go to Michigan."

What follows is the long decline in his manhood in Middle America, which is not portrayed as a bastion of culture. Trudging through the cold with his resume, this onetime culinary superstar is laughed at by proprietors of Ann Arbor restaurants, who can't believe he left a dining mecca like San Francisco. He has to take a job at Zingerman's Deli making sandwiches. After a faculty party at which he mostly talks to other spouses, Violet playfully proposes they leap onto a mound of snow. Tom initially hedges because of the weather, decides finally to jump — and then lands on a hidden fire hydrant.

You can't get much more direct: Moving to the Midwest with his fiancee has reduced Tom in all senses.

There's something else important in that scene. Violet's trying. She's not a stereotypical emasculating female — it's the situation that's the problem. She wants the Michigan position, but just as important, she wants to do what her mother didn't. The Five-Year Engagement has another couple for contrast — Alison Brie as Violet's excitable sister, Suzie; and Chris Pratt as Tom's juvenile-minded San Francisco assistant, Alex.

Although Suzie initially finds Alex repulsive, they drunkenly sleep together at Tom and Violet's engagement party, she gets pregnant, and they end up, like the protagonists of Apatow's Knocked Up, in a happy union. She didn't sweat the small stuff, like a career or the suitability of her mate!

You might be thinking, "But is the movie funny?" Much of it is. At two-and-a-quarter hours, it's too long, but that's mainly because director and co-screenwriter Nicholas Stoller is indulgent: He gives his supporting actors lots of room to show off their tricky rhythms.

Brie, who's Trudy Campbell on Mad Men and Annie Edison on Community, has a high adorable-ditz quotient, and Chris Pratt of Parks and Recreation enough sweetness to compensate for his bad-taste lines. A low-key Rhys Ifans is amazingly charming as Violet's lady-killing Welsh professor, who presides over her silly experiments and tells her, with regard to her fiance, that "it's OK to be selfish." (We see where that's going.)

To prove her rom-com bonafides, Blunt chatters dizzily and pulls faces, and she has a wonderful face to pull. Segel has said that studio execs ordered him to lose weight so the pairing wouldn't seem completely implausible, but his still-big body moves slowly, giving us the sense that it can't keep up with his emotions — he's unusually likable for a man of non-action.

The Five-Year Engagement is a crowd-pleaser, but for me it still left a bitter taste. In spite of the naughty words, Stoller and co-writer Segel and producer Apatow have engineered a scenario so simplistic and retro that you wonder about their larger agenda. Do they want women to be more like the main character's sister, for whom getting knocked up in a drunken one-night stand is a blessing in disguise?

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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