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Film Review – FIVE YEAR ENGAGEMENT

Director: Nicholas Stoller
Screenplay: Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller
Players: Jason Segel; Emily Blunt; Rhys Ifanns; Chris Pratt; Alison Brie
Venue: Cine 3, Maerua Mall
Genre: Romantic comedy
Rating: ***

This film starts in keeping with audience expectations: Tom Solomon (Segel) takes his girlfriend of one-year, Violet (Blunt) to the restaurant where he is the sous chef and he proposes on a balcony which offers a spectacular view of San Francisco. They reminisce over fizzing glasses of champagne about their meeting at the previous New Year party when their eyes locked across a crowded room of party marauders: she sat demurely in her Princess Di outfit and he stood fumbling for certainties in a pink acrylic Super Bunny outfit.
Here are two young people with personal career aspirations who instantly strike us as conservative and responsible citizens. Violet is waiting for a research post-doc position in a university Psychology Department and Tom’s lesbian boss, Chef Sally, cannot wait to promote him when she opens Clam Bar, a new restaurant. Regrettably, Fate intervenes when Violet is offered a research position at Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Tom nobly forfeits his promotion to follow her.
Nearly four years in film-time is devoted to a satirical look at Michigan: it seems densely populated by uncouth, shambling men with excessive facial hair and a hunting fetish. Sensitive Tom immediately flounders when he discovers there isn’t a decent restaurant in town and the best employment he can find is sandwich-maker at Zingerman’s Deli. He is stoical but depressed and the humour becomes progressively darker as Tom sinks psychologically and professionally.
The notion of romance dissipates completely as this sad twilight saga develops: Violet blossoms with her motley group of post-doc graduates, only one of whom will finally be offered tenure. The contrast between the ephemeral twaddle of the Psychology Professor, Winton Childs Ifanns), and his group with the grim reality of Tom’s constant battle with snow and sandwiches is satirical humour of a particularly savage kind. The writers, in fact, rely heavily on contrast to underlie the messages in this film. Violet’s sister, Suzie, marries soon after Violet’s engagement; she marries Alex (Pratt), an under-chef who reports to Tom at the San Francisco restaurant. Their married life involves instant babies but also fun in the sun.
The families also receive the contrast treatment: Tom’s parents are solid citizens with great aspirations for their Jewish son; Violet’s parents are divorced so she has a father whose hairstyle grows younger with the passing years (as do his ‘partners’) while her mother is dumpy, frumpy, cynical and single.
At the engagement party in the opening sequence, at a pretty park venue with everyone in their finery, tributes are made, one of which involves the wish that four grandparents will be present at the nuptials. Three to four years later three of the grandparents have passed away, causing the film to spend too much energy on funeral family get-togethers and repetitive ideas about the delays in tying the knot.
The abiding symbol in the film is taken from Violet’s research project: who takes the stale doughnut. Each member of the research group is asked to submit a project proposal and a romantic agenda prompts Professor Childs to accept Violet’s proposal. The objective is to analyse which kinds of people are prepared to eat a stale doughnut instead of waiting for the fresh ones promised after 20 minutes. It is hardly surprising that Tom’s decline and fall in the name of love becomes rapidly associated with taking the stale doughnut. Even the Michigan Neanderthals despise the project: at one point one of them heaves a half-eaten stale doughnut at the one-way mirror behind which the research group are clustered, taking notes. He ‘hollers’ contemptuously to ‘the five nerds back there’.
The Windhoek audience appreciated both the ‘grin’ and ‘grim’ humour and there were hearty guffaws in parts. The concept was good but the director’s execution was patchy. Segel was comfortable in a role he had basically written for himself but Blunt’s performance was underwhelming.  Fortunately, she is easy on the eye. For me the little cameo parts like ambitious research ‘ post docs’, Ming and Vaneetha, were a delight .

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