Sunday, April 29, 2012

As time goes by

Facial hair can indicate clinical depression
Forget five years -- 124 minutes!  There's a reason that romantic comedies, which The Five-Year Engagement (2012) is not, uniformly last 90 to 100 minutes.  The ground has been covered, no matter what it is, and once the audience has sussed out your new twist or gimmick, it's your obligation to get off the stage as quickly and entertainingly possible.

But, as previously asserted, TFYE is not a romantic comedy.  At times it is only a comedy the way Uncle Vanya is a comedy, which is one reason I regret it was directed by the crass Nicholas Stoller, whose last credit, Get Him To The Greek , was dedicated to the proposition that there is nothing funnier than Jonah Hill's butt crack.  Moreover, Mr. Stoller and Mr. Segal seemed to be so busy acting and directing that they did not notice the fairly easy cut they could have made which would have lopped off 20-25 minutes to this film and substantially improved it.

(The cut I mean is to go from Jason Segal's character learning that his fiancee has kissed her boss straight to Segal returning to San Francisco.  That would have omitted the disgusting attempted adultery-with-condiments scene and the disgusting frostbitten toe.  The Apatow crowd seems to be stuck in the pubescent phase of confusing bodily fluids and food plus a fascination with bodily mutilation.)

On the other hand, Segal and Stoller have to be applauded for trying to make something different and better, even if they didn't succeed.  The idea is that relationships are hard and don't match ideals, that we fail and fall short and we still love each other.  Not new, but needs to be repeated for each generation.

Because TFYE is really, at heart, an example of what art historian Stanley Cavell termed the "comedy of remarriage" of which Noel Coward's Private Lives is the modern progenitor. (Cavell finds its roots in Shakespearean comedy.)  In TFYE, the break-up and reunion happen in the context of an engagement, rather than requiring divorce and remarriage, but that is merely a function of changing social customs and movie censorship.  The principal is the same.  Unblemished happiness cannot survive, will not survive.  The characters must be tempered, must be chastened, punished perhaps (maybe that's why the frostbite) so that they may learn.  It might even be considered a comedy of lessons.

What makes TFYE disconcerting is that whereas Coward masks his character's pain in badinage with only the briefest of lapses revealing the truth, the characters in Segal & Stoller's script talk the way real couples having real trouble really talk.  Which is fine, except for the sort of style problems raised when such material is in juxtaposition with the Apatow brand of not just fall-on-your-prat humor, but fall-on-your-prat-in-poo-three-times-over humor.

That said, I laughed not infrequently and there is one Hall of Fame scene between Emily Blunt and Alison Brie.  They are arguing about the long engagement and marriage in front of a young child, and have therefore adopted (rather poor) imitations of Elmo and Cookie Monster, respectively to conduct the argument, which concludes, "'C' is for condom!"

One other odd element -- the cinematography of Javier Aguirresarobe, who not only has never shot a comedy before, but is responsible for some very dark horror films and thrillers (The Road, The Others, some of the Twilight films).  TFYE looked very dark, with many rollicking comedy scenes in half-shadow and the comic violence invoked real terror and pain.  Now the fact is, I saw the film in my neighborhood theater, which is a little old and shabby, and it just may have been that the projector bulb was dim and that the film is very bright and cuddly and cheerful.  But honestly, when a comedy film's characters get depressed, should you be just as depressed as well?  I sure was.

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