By Michael Phillips 2012-10-18

Tribune Newspapers Critic

3 1/2 stars

A lot of terrible romantic comedies come along in a given year, and after five or six you begin to question your belief in anything -- romance, comedy, movies, even terribleness itself. Before you know it, you're trying to break the fever and hit bottom, deliberately, with repeated viewings of films co-starring either Katherine Heigl or Gerard Butler or, worse, their near-lethal joint effort, the Yugo of rom-coms: "The Ugly Truth."

So. When something as sharp and funny as "The Five-Year Engagement" comes along, it means something. I really like this film, loose flaps, protracted finale and all. As in last year's "Bridesmaids," an authentic, dimensional human element animates the jokes and the characters with whom we spend a couple of highly satisfying hours.

Jason Segel, lately muppeting around in "The Muppets," co-wrote the script with director Nicholas Stoller, his "Muppets" partner, who also directed Segel in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall." The movie begins where others typically wrap it up. San Francisco chef Tom Solomon (Segel) proposes to Violet Barnes, played by the fabulous Emily Blunt. She's angling on doctoral studies in social psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. But when the call comes, it's from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Plans are adjusted. Tom gives up his shot at running the kitchen in a fancy new Bay Area bistro to relocate, with Violet, to Ann Arbor, where after a deceptively quick job-hunting sequence he finds work at the finest deli between the coasts, Zingerman's, which is a real place (and what a place!) and a presence as crucial as any in the formidable "Five-Year Engagement" ensemble.

Tom and Violet hear their wedding bells, but fate and their own doubts conspire to keep them off in the distance. While they postpone their marriage for one reason, and then another, Tom's best friend and fellow chef Alex (Chris Pratt) hooks up with Violet's sister, Suzie (Alison Brie). Theirs seems like a haphazard coupling with no future, but before long they have a child on the way, leaving Tom and Violet in the dust, Facebook update-wise.

"This is your wedding!" Suzie tells Violet before the first postponement. "You only get a few of those!" The punch line's clever, but it's not delivered for an imaginary laugh track. Stoller's film proceeds with a blithe confidence. In outline form, "The Five-Year Engagement" goes by the numbers. The script creates useful supporting cliques for both major characters. Violet's psych-study group, led by her subtly wolfish professor (Rhys Ifans), is a prime group of eccentrics, including Mindy Kaling as a researcher of considerable undermining skills. Tom falls in with the Zingerman's pickle expert (Brian Posehn) and improbably discovers deer hunting with another "faculty husband," a mild-mannered fellow played by Chris Parnell.

Shooting in San Francisco and Ann Arbor, cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe (who's worked with Pedro Almodovar) lends "The Five-Year Engagement" a lovely sheen, far easier on the eye than any previous Judd Apatow-produced comedy. The narrative formulas aren't exactly new; they wouldn't be formulas if they were. But one scene in particular seals our investment in the story. It's a late-night argument, following a dicey encounter between Violet and her mentor, and the way Blunt and Segel build the scene, it feels utterly true (without sacrificing the funny). Segel and Blunt are enormously likable people on screen, armed with wide-eyed charm and stealthy timing. When the relationship at the movie's heart threatens to erode from within, you feel for both halves equally. And by the end, you realize how seldom this happens in this most devalued of genres.

MPAA rating: R (for sexual content and language throughout).

Running time: 2:04.

Cast: Jason Segal (Tom); Emily Blunt (Violet); Chris Pratt (Alex); Alison Brie (Suzie); Brian Posehn (Tarquin).

Credits: Directed by Nicholas Stoller; written by Stoller and Jason Segel; produced by Judd Apatow, Stoller and Rodney Rothman. A Universal Pictures release.

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