Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Golden Age of Male Post-Feminist Comedy: The Five-Year Engagement

The Bad and the Beautiful
     Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) focused its examination of the joy and madness of moviemaking on the producer played by Kirk Douglas.  Ever since a group of French writers that loved the fun and art of movies, but didn’t understand the capitalist Hollywood factory business model that made them, over-emphasized the importance of the director over the producer, writer, star, and studio in the ‘50s in Cahiers du Cinema, the Auteur Theory has been the primary method for assessing a
director’s career and criticizing a cinematic work.  Yet it was Irving Thalberg, Arthur Freed, Samuel Goldwyn, among many other producers, who put together the teams that made the movies.  After all, the most basic truth is that film is a collaborative medium.  

     Since Heavyweights (1995), Judd Apatow has written and produced movies, but he came into his own as a producer/mogul (sometimes also writing and/or directing) with the romantic comedy The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005). Apatow’s Hollywood connections through twenty years of TV 
The 40-Year-Old Virgin
and movies, a generous and unerring eye for talent, loyalty to his collaborators, and relentless work ethic has resulted in what can only be referred to as The Apatow Fraternity:  charming, easy chemistry between the leads; a wonderful set of off-beat roles for secondary actors on their way up; nice use of older, really talented actor’s actors in parental roles; ethnic diversity and honest exploration of  the Christian/Jewish dynamic. The movies are anchored by intelligent, deeply felt stories hiding behind raunchy sex scenes and foul-mouthed characters.

     The latest product, The Five-Year Engagement, is co-produced by Apatow, directed/co-written/co-produced by Nicholas Stoller, and co-written and starring Jason Segel.  It’s about a couple, obviously meant for each other, that keep putting off their wedding through a series of job changes, moves, and even the breakdown and re-building of their relationship. Although it’s over two hours, it’s not overlong because it has the guts not to cut corners.  It earns the sentiment of the eventual nuptials because it’s taken the audience to some dark, serious places.  

Dexter Anxiously Awaits Her Answer
     This is a large ensemble cast and it’s tough to tear away from these actors.  The leads are Jason Segel and Emily Blunt as Tom and Violet.  Segel has a loose, smart sweetness that recalls both Jack Lemmon and George Segal.  Like them, he can be unsettling because he has an edge that’s depressive.  In a country in which so many since 2001 have become obsessed with describing themselves as some type of Christian and in which much of the media is virulently against Islam, it’s a relief that a leading man is a proud, funny, relaxed Jew.  Emily Blunt has instant chemistry with Segel and this shouldn’t be a surprise because she’s connected with Rupert Friend, Jack Black, and Matt Damon most recently.  She always brings her game and provides whatever is needed emotionally in the discreet, professional manner of the pre-Method Hollywood stars.  She’s able to play comedy or drama and follows in a long line of ladylike actresses who can provide a kick of mirth such as Myrna Loy, Barbara Stanwyck, Irene Dunne, and Glenda Jackson.  She can put on a passable American accent (Sunshine Cleaning) and plays well with actresses (My Summer of Love, The Devil Wears Prada, Sunshine Cleaning, and here).  

Allison Brie and Emily Blunt
     The breakout performers are Alison Brie as Violet’s sister Suzie and Chris Pratt as Tom’s best friend and fellow chef Alex.  She’s basically the stock soubrette character and he’s a zanni.  Pratt is best known as the laid-back dope Andy Dwyer on Parks and Recreation and Brie has been the ultimate Junior League corporate wife Trudy Campbell on Mad Men.  However, they take off as a horny duo that decide to do the right thing when she turns out to be pregnant and then turn into the traditional, sensible couple that we thought would be Tom and Violet.  The two funniest 
Chris Pratt and Jason Segal
and most original scenes are between these peers and the complex justifications behind Alex and Suzie’s seemingly contented life.  Alex is both joyous and panicked about immediate fatherhood and Suzie and Violet question each other’s choices while impersonating Muppets for Suzie’s young daughter.  This is a brilliantly original scene because the sisters reveal harsh truths in giddy, squeaky voices.  Segel and Stoller co-wrote The Muppets and they again treat those icons with respect, but also fun.

     There were some moments that surprised me because Segel and Stoller revealed some male secrets I haven’t seen in pop culture before this.  I found them hilarious (as did the younger, straight guy with his girlfriend sitting behind Neil and me), but I was also taken aback.  Some audience members may be turned off not only by some of the language, but also by the sex scenes that were funny, nasty, and actually unpleasant for the man – another first.  A colleague of mine shared that she’d read that the Y chromosome is weakening and might disappear over time.  What will happen to the human species if that happens?  I’m sure a number of other species will be highly relieved.  At its root, this movie examines the Apatow binary attraction and opposition of the alpha female and the beta male.  It’s goofily profound.

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