What makes Judd Apatow and his crew’s films so good is often what also keeps them from being better. It’s the result of a balancing act that makes me respect and enjoy Apatow’s films so much for what they attempt, and yet often leaves me feeling like the films bit off more than they could chew.
It’s an unfair criticism, I admit. The man who brought us TV cult hits “Freaks and Geeks” and “Undeclared.” Then we realized he gave us “Heavyweights.” AND HE PRODUCED ANCHORMAN? Judd Apatow is the man.
Then came a late summer movie in 2005 right before I went off to college that no one was quite sure of called “The 40 Year-Old Virgin.” Then we saw it. It was the crudest movie we saw that summer. But it was also the movie with the most heart and, in the midst of the extremely witty and crude humor, a true message about authentic love and sexuality. Who would have thought that the final message of the movie would be that Steve Carrell’s character would eventually wait until marriage for sex and that the other characters who had long made fun of him would actually admire him for it?
Ah, Hollywood. You tricky little devil. Just when we thought we had you figured out. The Judd Apatow formula arrived.
Then we got Knocked Up and Superbad. But, truth be told, my favorite of the Judd Apatow-produced films (Apatow wrote and directed 40 Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Funny People, while producing many of the others) has always been “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” Maybe it’s because I loved How I Met Your Mother from the first season (I won’t go off on my soapbox right now judging HIMYM’s roller coaster ride over the years). Maybe it’s because I’ve loved Kristen Bell since Veronica Mars. Maybe it’s because I expected Russell Brand’s character to be so obnoxious after seeing the trailers and yet found myself laughing at every effortless line of dialogue he delivered and movement he made. Maybe it’s because it made a star of Mila Kunis and every small appearance by Apatow’s crew left me reeling with laughter. The formula remained though.
It was a movie that hooked you by your funny bone, but kept you re-watching because of its heart. “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” is my favorite of the Apatow films because, to me, it’s the one that is the most re-watchable. It best strikes the balance between hilarity and outrageous comedy on one end and a heartfelt story about love and life on the other end. It was the underdog film that came out at the beginning of the summer movie season and became a hit. Apatow didn’t write and direct it. Instead, Jason Segal and Nicholas Stoller wrote it. Stoller directed it. Segal starred in it and made the movie his own, all the way down to his love of puppets.
Since “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” Segal and Stoller kept the good times coming, but this time for the whole family, when they gave us “The Muppets.”
So it should come as no surprise to you that I’ve been quite excited about “The Five-Year Engagement” for quite some time. Basically a follow-up to “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” we have a script by Segal and Stoller again. Stoller’s directing. Segal is starring. AND Emily Blunt (who I’ve learned to love by watching her in movies with my wife, knowing she’s Jim from The Office’s wife, and she broke Michael Buble’s heart)! AND Allison Brie from Community/Mad Men?! AND CHRIS PRATT FROM PARKS & REC!?!?
Too good to be true. But then there’s that hilarious bloke from Notting Hill (Rhys Ifans), Kevin Hart, and Mindy Kaling. Sprinkle in some other Apatow cast mainstays in cameos and you’ve got to have another successful hit on your hands, right? A movie for adults about adult life? I’m married now, after all. Surely, I’ll understand the movies even better. Surely, they’ll keep getting better, right?
Yes and no.
It first became very clear in “Funny People.” As Judd Apatow continues to try to top himself, his films become more ambitious in what they try to portray. While this makes for some very real and authentic scenes about the ups and downs of friendship, romantic relationships, and life, it also makes for some, at times, uneven movies. After laughing until I cried and then feeling like I might need to actually cry during “Funny People,” I couldn’t help but feel like I had just watched a film that tried to be too much all in one. It was a movie about the twilight years of a comedic superstar, then a movie about living life knowing it’s about to end, then a movie about love and divorce and romantic entanglements. While life is often about all of these feelings wrapped into one, it’s very hard to capture all of this in one film, especially a comedy that runs longer than 2 hours. But “Funny People” eventually faded from our memories when “Bridesmaids” introduced us to a whole new crew of ladies that gave us a new perspective on the Apatow formula and had us laughing until we cried once again.
This is NOT an insult to Judd Apatow or his crew. If anything, their ambition should be rewarded. Their films are hilarious and heartfelt. As guilty as they can be of continuing the Hollywood game of progressively pushing the envelope to cruder and more profane ends than ever before (sometimes with payoffs and other times with just shaking of our heads), they also have given us movies with the most heart and most authentic discussion/portrayal of why pursuing selfish desires at all costs is ultimately fruitless. For this, the films should be commended. And for making us laugh until we cry.
“The Five-Year Engagement” was surely better than most other romantic comedies these days. (I barely can watch them anymore. At best, they’re worth some good laughs and fun rest for my brain.)
As someone who has been married for nearly a year, I could better relate to the interpersonal dynamics that played out between the lead characters, played wonderfully by the endearing Segal and the subtly and charmingly hilarious Blunt. As the awkward hilarity played out on screen, I understood better how the characters’ selfishness could make for awkward and absurd moments of interpersonal misunderstandings. These moments can be brilliant and many Christian pre-marital counseling sessions could be improved dramatically with some wise use of clips from “The Five-Year Engagement,” dissecting communication breakdowns, absurd logic, and emotional selfishness.
On top of all of that, even if not always conveying the most Biblical values, the core message of the film fits quite nicely beside marriage/relationship advice from most Christian books today, including Tim Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage. The message is this: to expect that marriage is about finding your “soulmate” or “perfect partner” that will make living life easier by doing it together is a myth. Both Segal and Blunt’s characters get this advice, in various ways that are both hilarious and poignant, towards the end of the film. “There is no perfect cookie,” is the way Brie’s character puts it.
Which there isn’t. None of us are perfect and so to expect that there is a “perfect” mate for us is silly. And it leads us to many silly choices, decisions, and situations where our selfishness and pride leave us feeling, well, silly.
And neither is there a perfect film. Especially when Segal, Stoller, Apatow, cast, and crew try to provide us films to tickle our funny bones and wrench our hearts. Most reviews have said the obvious – this film is too long. Depending on who you ask, most will say that they could cut out 15 to 20 minutes from the bloated middle act of the film to make it much better. My wife commented that it should be the period when Segal is bearded and sulking. I commented that it was perhaps bloated in order to give needed time to the hilarious supporting cast of comedic up-and-comers who I pray can make the jump to stardom just as Segal has.
Inevitably, though, The Five-Year Engagement is imperfect because of what it tries to do… something that I would argue is nearly impossible. In today’s day, when television shows are more consistently good than movies, and movies all too often strive to be either way too independent/artsy or pander to the blockbuster crowd, it’s nice to go see a movie that simply tries to be what it is. An imperfect mix of portraying the beauties and speed bumps along this road that we call life while being witty and clever, making us laugh until we cry.