It is lazy to complain that the films of producer Judd Apatow are longer than they need to be; this is something that has passed from criticism to mere characteristic that everybody knows. Arthur Freed's movies were in eyeball-searing Technicolor and often ended with a pseudo-ballet; Val Lewton's blurred the edge between paranormal and psychological horror, and did it with lots of chiaroscuro lighting; Apatow's are too long and fixated on the process by which immature man-children become less immature men. As they say, it's a feature, not a bug - okay, so it's something of a bug, but one that you just have to be okay with unless you plan on skipping out on every Apatow-produced movie ever, and while not a one of them is a sterling masterpiece, there would still be a quite a few babies going out with that bathwater.

So, anyway, The Five-Year Engagement is too long. 124 minutes for a comedy that starts skirting into not very funny issues of domestic comity and the work it takes for two people in love to function as a couple and as individuals into a couple: not as annoyingly draggy as Knocked Up, but it could have 25 or 30 minutes snipped out, no sweat. That's just how it is, and how it was always going to be. Let us not speak of it again.

It is the second film directed by Nicholas Stoller, co-writing with star Jason Segel, under the Apatow umbrella; the first was Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which I do not recall liking at the time, though the internet promises me that I did; by this point, all I can really strongly remember is the chalky aftertaste left by which I cannot in good faith call "misogyny", though there's something problematic and dark about the way it conceives of women (it's essentially The Nice Guy Fallacy: The Movie). Which managed to keep my enthusiasm for Engagement tamped down, and it is maybe for that reason that I actually ended up liking the movie quite a lot. Or maybe it's just because for all that Engagement is a movie written by males with a distinctly male perspective, it plays startlingly fair by its female lead, and given how much a healthy chunk of the back hour acts like it really wants to start tossing blame around this way and that, it's practically heroic of Stoller and Segel that they remain so committed to presenting both perspectives of its central couple as being both reasonable and selfish in their own ways (if not, perhaps, equally reasonable and selfish to one another).

The title makes the concept reasonably obvious: in the opening scene, on New Year's Eve in what we can just about assume is 2006 (a Blood Diamond joke is made), San Franciscans Tom Solomon (Segel) proposes to Violet Barnes (Emily Blunt), one year to the day after they met. They plan on getting married fairly quickly, but she gets a terrific opportunity to do research at the University of Michigan, and they agree not to actually get married until they return to San Francisco and resume their previous lovely lives, which in Tom's case included being soux chef at one of the city's hot new restaurants. A two-year commitment turns into a four-year commitment, and by the time that one gets to wrapping up, the gauzy one-year glow of new romance has worn off, replaced by a stark reappraisal about what both halves of the couple expect both from their professional lives and their romantic partner. I will not tell you where this ends up taking them, though I don't suppose it is all that much of a surprise.

To clear out the low-hanging fruit right offhand: whatever odd little issues the film has with women (and they end up being much less severe at the end than it appears they're going to at the midway point), there's no denying that Engagement is appallingly smug about life in the Midwest. "Christ Jesus Almighty," Stoller and Segel are saying, "they shoot deer in Michigan, and EAT it. And they raise their own BEES and use the honey to make MEAD. AND FUCK ME, the SNOW, the ENDLESS FUCKING ALL THE TIME SNOW". The hunting and mead gags aren't such big deals as it goes (though venison is delicious), but I have very little patience for the manner in which The Five-Year Engagement suggests rather hysterically that Ann Arbor has two seasons, winter and late spring, the latter of which lasts for approximately eight days. And sure, the point of all this is to dramatise that Tom is having a hard time making an adjustment to a new sort of lifestyle, but the film's argument isn't that this is a reasonable lifestyle, but that it's the kind of mortal hell that nobody would willingly choose unless it was for their job or to support their fiancΓ©e's job.

Anyway, getting beyond that, the film presents a rather sweet and reasonably intelligent view of how two people get along and do not get along in equal measure, using a supporting cast of comic stock types to shore up the realism of the central pair - a trick that has been used in other Apatow family comedies, but works exceptionally well in this case. It helps matters immensely that Blunt and Segel have crazily good chemistry with one another, and convince us of what is, ultimately, the only thing the film truly needs to work dramatically: that Tom and Violet have not only passion but also comfort and familiarity with each other; there is a lot of little business that implies all of the off-screen romance they've had, and this is vital given that, unlike most American romantic comedies, the quirky "getting to know you" material is left out, save for flashbacks to the night the couple met that are incorporated into the first ten minutes rather energetically.

Indeed, the first quarter or so of the film is far and away the most lively and engaging: the comedy is at its silliest and most playfully raunchy, and Stoller's few directorial tricks - neither her nor in Sarah Marshall does he demonstrate himself as much more than a functional director - the most creative and fleet. Partially by design, I suspect, the film keeps this up almost to the moment that the couple is packed off to Michigan, when it takes a decisive turn for a slacker pace and more wandering jokes; by the one-hour mark, it has also started giving up on comedy, and I do not suspect but am out-and-out certain that this was deliberate. The arc of the movie is from a comedy with emotional realism only in that the central couple is not like a set of cartoons to a relationship drama where the jokes are mostly like a veneer of comic relief, and this is clearly supposed to reflect the character's journey from simple, untroubled expectations of what Eternal Love is like, to a more mature and hard-won knowledge that relationships are difficult and imperfect. And in this regard it is effective, though there's no denying that the film gets a lot less pleasant to watch and begins bogging down in its own insights as it goes on.

Nor does it help that the film ends up being so damn conservative: Apatow productions in the main tend to be overwhelmingly pro-family at any cost, celebrations of the status quo in which filthy language is used largely as a feint that keeps anybody from noticing how square the whole thing is; so that's not much of a surprise, either. But the soul of comedy lies in anarchy, in upsetting institutions and mocking the normal, and it has rarely hurt any of these movies as much as it does Engagement that it ends up being thus unabashedly in favor of marriage as the only really legitimate way of being in love (Tom and Violet live together for at least four years, yet there's always an undercurrent that implies that it's "fake" until they have a certificate), with an entire shotgun marriage subplot centered around Tom's best friend and Violet's Sister (Chris Pratt, who is largely unbearable, and Alison Brie), that at times feels like it exists just to defray the criticisms leveled against Knocked Up, about its blind eye toward abortion and it insistence on forcing two mismatched lovers into unpersuasive wedded bliss. And these things come to the fore exactly at the same time that Stoller really begins ratcheting back on the actual comedy, only reinforcing the sense that underneath its dick jokes and dirty mouth, The Five-Year Engagement is really tying to be a moral scold.

But all that being said: when it works, it works, and that is most of the time. The funniest moments are absolutely untouched by seriousness, and even the most solemn passages have a vein of some kind of worried, existential humor. Besides, no matter how things ever get, the Blunt-Segel pairing is never less than phenomenal. That, at least, makes sure the film is consistently engaging: as one of the only romantic comedies in ages where the romance is legitimately credible and appealing, it never once fails to work on the simple but all-important level of presenting two people that we like to hang out with being enjoyable together. Without that, everything else wouldn't matter; with that, even the rockiest passages of stretched-thing jokes and overburdened self-consciousness still manage to trot by at a steady, watchable pace. It is, as always, no masterpiece, but an exceptionally satisfying way to spend time and laugh a bit, and this is an indisputably good thing to be.

7/10