This is something of an immediate response review – probably a bad idea. But I feel like I want to unpack my reaction to The Five-Year Engagement, and I just happen to have some time.
Basically, I’m still trying to decide whether I enjoyed it or not. Which seems silly – surely you know if you enjoyed something, right? But I think I simultaneously did and didn’t enjoy it, at the same time – leaving me with the ultimate reaction of ‘hmmm’.
Mark Kermode’s rule for a comedy is that he has to laugh seven times. I laughed seven times. There’s a lot of it I enjoyed. There’s a huge amount to like in Violet and Tom’s relationship, and even more in Alex and Suzie’s – encapsulated in Alison Brie’s fabulous Elmo-voiced moment of telling her sister just what’s-what at the end. I liked that even when Tom was falling apart at the seams in Michigan, the film showed a lot of what’s good in that community, even if it’s not San Francisco, and that he doesn’t automatically forget that when he goes back. And I thought the ending was charming. If you asked me, I’d probably say, yes, it’s a perfectly fine film, go and see it (although it is a bit too long).
However. However – there was barely a moment of the film that involved Violet’s academic career that didn’t make me want to watch from behind my fingers, or hide my eyes under the edge of my hoodie. It’s just painful. Yes, Rhys Ifans’ character is a sleaze. He could be a sleaze and a realistic representative of the academic community. The representation of the academics in film is either lazy, or thinks incredibly little of the brain-power or general human qualities of academics generally. Also, the dialogue for those scenes is just laboured. It’s like the writers went, “We need a psychology thing for them to talk about, what has Jonah Lehrer been writing about lately, and now let’s make it funny by laughing about how silly it all is.”
The decisions that Violet and Tom have to make are very real if one or both of a couple are looking at a career in academia nowadays. You have got to be willing to go where the jobs are to get a foot on the career ladder. Sometimes you have to stay there – even if there is, horror-of-horrors for a Bay Area foodie, Michigan. Let’s all just faint now. As a wannabe academic you make a choice – are you willing to go anywhere and give up possibly everything else to chase this career, and if not, where are you drawing the line (and how long are you chasing it for).
And here’s the other thing about the film. The way you make those decisions is quite often not related to how ‘smart’ you are – or how academically able (and bear in mind that success in an academic career involves being a particular kind of ‘smart’). They’re probably more often related to the kind of life you want to lead, and where and with whom you want to live it.
I really liked the way the film wanted to represent the struggle and the negotiations Violet and Tom have to go through. What I didn’t like was the way, at the end, her ‘not being good enough’ at her chosen career was forced to become a major factor in her decision. WTF scriptwriters. I already worked out from the lame-ass depiction of academia that you don’t really know / haven’t bothered to find out what ‘a high-quality academic environment looks like’ (and also that mail for someone who’s in a post-doc role is most likely going to be address to Dr Person, not Ms Person). But now you can’t even let you lead female be good within your pretty-limited version of an academic career? Tom is allowed to be a really great cook with a fabulous potential career, and consider giving all that up to go support the woman he loves. Why can’t you grant her the same? It would make your film better, for a start, as we’d be able to feel for – and laugh with – both characters equally. And it wouldn’t make the girls in the audience want to hit you over the head with a spoon. Go over there and sit on the naughty step.