How I’d Fix It: The Five Year Engagement
I want to set the record straight right off the bat: despite this film’s inclusion in this column, The Five Year Engagement isn’t “broken” in any significant way. It’s a very warm, sweet, and funny movie, full of good performances and with a lively, clever script. It didn’t light a fire under me like other Apatow productions, but it’s still a cut above the average romantic comedy.
That being said, I spotted in this film the potential for something greater, or at least more interesting, than what it turned out as. The movie sets out to do one thing, and while it fulfills that goal well enough, in the process it stumbles upon another thing, an idea more original and intriguing than that initial goal. As it is, the movie is fine, but if it had made this accidental idea its focus, I really believe it might have been something truly memorable.
The film’s central theme is of learning to accept that nothing can be perfect in love. The main couple, Tom and Violet, have such a long engagement because they keep putting off their wedding because circumstances continually don’t “feel” right. Their respective arcs have them coming around to embrace their uncertainty.
As I said, this is a perfectly good theme, and a good message to send, to boot. But along the way, the movie touches on another idea, one that’s been far less explored in popular culture so far. It’s the topic of shifting gender roles in modern society. Sorry for putting it like the title of a college essay, but bear with me.
Tom’s main conflict in the story is his struggle with professional unfulfillment. When Violet gets a new job that requires her to move across the country for years, he goes with her, giving up a plush position that he loves. He goes from being sous chef in an upscale San Francisco restaurant to a sandwich-maker in a rural Wisconsin town. He’s made the kind of sacrifice that has historically been expected of the woman in a relationship. His reaction, of silent dissatisfaction and buried resentment against Violet, is the kind of stuff that’s been the topic of feminist literature for years, except with the man in the role of the bored partner. Tom’s arc is that he learns to make the best of his situation, but they way he chafes against the reversed gender paradigm in his relationship is much more compelling.
The filmmakers were at least semi conscious of what they were on to. A good part of the plot is devoted to Tom attempting to “reclaim” his masculinity. He mainly does this by throwing himself into hunting, an activity that initially horrifies him. One of his best friends in Wisconsin is a fellow partner of a college professor, who does the same, in rebellion against his life as a househusband and knitting enthusiast. And yet there’s no tactic admission of what’s really going on in these guys’s heads. At best, they’re being held up as a joke, which sends a bad message (because coded in that is the assumption that men as a rule aren’t “meant” for such roles, an outdated, regressive idea).
I’m not making wild, unfounded leaps in logic here. One sequence has Tom and said friend (I can’t remember his name, but he’s played by the hilarious Chris Parnell) planning the wedding, and half the jokes are predicated on the idea that men doing such things is inherently absurd. What if the filmmakers had really run with this? Despite the best efforts of the Republican Party, we are moving towards a society where more and more men will find themselves expected to do things that would make their grandfathers weep (restrained, dignified) tears of shame. And that’s a good thing, and in order to make the transition smoother, we could do with a good dose of empathy. And this film was perfectly poised to be that dose, with just a few adjustments.
Because the way Tom feels is the way that billions of women have felt throughout history. And why should it be wrong that he goes through this, but it’s fine for them? I have no idea where this hypothetical plot thread takes him, nor how it affects Violet’s role in the story. Maybe they can’t work through it, and break up. Maybe he has a moment of clarity and decides to accept the sacrifice. At the very least, the focus of the movie would likely shift from the length of their engagement, demanding a title change.
The Five Year Engagement isn’t bad just because the filmmakers weren’t interested in what interested me. Again, it’s a good movie. But I hate seeing missed opportunities and unfulfilled potential more than anything else in a film. When greatness is within reach, how can you ne satisfied with just good? I really do believe the actors and writers at work here could have pulled it off. They were already at least halfway there, even if they didn’t recognize it.