San Franciscans Tom and Violet are in love. They want to get married and have 25 kids and live happily ever after.
Then, just when they're mulling over possible wedding sites and picking colors and deciding just what sort of doilies to put on the tables, life rears up and says, "Not so fast, you two!" Violet—a wannabe psychology professor—is offered the opportunity of a lifetime to study under and work for the charismatic academic Winton Childs. But there's a catch: He's at the University of Michigan, where there's, like, snow and stuff.
Tom is working on his own promising career—that of a big-city chef—but he agrees to pick up and follow Violet to Michigan. They're cohabiting and therefore a package deal, right? And it's just for a couple of years, right?
But the move necessitates they postpone the wedding because—
Um, because …
Well, I might have to get back to you on that.
We may not share Tom and Violet's values. We may not agree with the way they live their lives. And yet they still look familiar to us, and we can see parts of ourselves in them.
Violet isn't a horrible person for wanting to pursue her career. She loves Tom and wants him to be happy, but she's aware that the opportunities she's been handed might never come around again. Nor is Tom a horrible person even when he starts resenting the sacrifices he's made for Violet and her career. He feels as though he always has to take a backseat to her needs and desires. While we understand that, ideally, we should always be willing to give so much more to others, our own human needs can get in the way of that, and The Five-Year Engagement gives us a poignant look at how even relationships between two people who love and care for each other can sometimes go awry.
It's strange—bewildering even—that Tom and Violet postpone their nuptials for so long and for such a bizarre reason. (Really? Moving to Michigan means you can't get married?) But it does give the film a conduit to the moral of the story: Storybook weddings may be achievable, but storybook lives are not. No matter how hard we work or how well we plan, life will always interfere with the fairy tales we write for ourselves. Likewise, no matter how long we look for Mr. or Mrs. Right, no spouse will ever be a "perfect" match. Tom's mother tells him that she and his father aren't perfect for each other: They're not even 60% "right," she says. "But he's the love of my life." And given the length of their marriage, we know she means it. Marriage isn't about whether you're singing the exact same melody as your beloved: It's about whether you can find a way to harmonize.
Tom was raised Jewish and Violet Christian, and the two initially opt to hold a joint Jewish/Christian wedding. The rabbi tells the couple that all men should wear a yamaka to the wedding. (Tom says he keeps his in his "Jewish drawer.") The pastor counters that all the Christians will then receive communion.
In the end, the couple opts for a Justice of the Peace to oversee their service.
The Five-Year Engagement is directed by Nicholas Stoller (Get Him to the Greek, Forgetting Sarah Marshall) and rolled out by the production house of Judd Apatow (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up). Anyone who knows even a little about either Stoller's and Apatow's films knows what's coming next: lots of sexual content.
In the film's ethos, casual, premarital sex is a given—and as such, the characters here engage in quite a bit of it. Tom and Violet live together throughout their five-year engagement. We see them kiss and roll around in bed. When they decide to go to Michigan, Tom demands sexual payback. Violet promises that their lovemaking will resemble a Cirque du Soleil show (making a few suggestive hand gestures to drive home her point). When they get to Michigan, Violet suggests sex in a snowbank; Tom's wary because of what the cold will do to his anatomy. After Tom finds out they'll be spending a few more years in Ann Arbor, the two have more sex (we see movements under the covers), and Tom fakes an orgasm.
Violet and her boss, Prof. Childs, kiss. (Violet immediately regrets it.) Tom goes much further, nearly having sex with a co-worker: Making out in the sandwich shop where they work, she strips him naked, slaps him with meat and potato salad and sprays him with hot sauce before lying down on a table and handing him a condom. (Tom leaves the shop stark naked.) Later, when he and Victoria break up, Tom engages in repeated, wild sex with his 23-year-old girlfriend. (Under the covers, their positions and movements are unmistakable.)
Tom's best friend, Alex, and Violet's sister, Suzie, hook up during Tom and Violet's engagement party. The encounter leaves Suzie pregnant, and the two get married. During that same engagement party, Alex runs through a PowerPoint of all of Tom's ex-lovers.
One of Violet's co-workers is obsessed with studying masturbation. And Alex pretends to masturbate with a carrot covered in ranch dressing. Sex-related talk includes fantasies about various Disney princesses and the subject of lesbianism. Crass, vulgar and/or lewd comments are made about sexual body parts.
Tom cooks breakfast for Violet while wearing an apron featuring Michelangelo's nude statue of David. When he turns around, we see he's not wearing pants.
Tom turns into quite a hunter, going mostly for deer. At one point a carcass slips messily off his car, and he winds up putting it in the passenger seat. Guests worry aloud that if they leave their toddler daughter with Tom, she might wind up on one of his meat hooks in the garage. That doesn't happen, but the toddler does fire Tom's crossbow, lodging a bolt in Violet's leg. Tom pulls the projectile out, and we see the bloody wound it caused.
A chef slices off the tip of her finger. (Blood shoots across glass.) Tom loses a toe to frostbite. He and Winton get into a fight that ends with Tom falling off a car and getting punched in the throat. He injures his hip when he jumps into a pile of snow—hiding a fire hydrant.
One of Violet's co-workers conducts an experiment in which a sleeping subject is covered with blood and chicken feathers—and given a loaded gun. The psychologist then shouts into the subject's ears. The gun fires harmlessly during the test—but the subject beats up the psychologist.
Alex, after learning Suzie's pregnant, reportedly tells her, "There's no f‑‑‑ing way you're keeping this baby."
Crude or Profane Language
Characters say the f-word more than 40 times, and the s-word is spoken nearly 20. Milder exclamations include "a‑‑," "b‑‑ch," "h‑‑‑" and "pr‑‑k." God's name is abused more than 20 times (twice with "d‑‑n"). Jesus' name is misused three or four times. Obscene gestures are made.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Most everybody drinks … heavily. Tom and Violet get blitzed at their engagement party. And Violet looks for some Dutch courage in a bottle whenever she needs to tell Tom they're going to or staying in Michigan. She and Winton are both drunk when they kiss. Tom is trashed when he makes out with his co-worker, and he falls asleep for the night in the snow (the consequences of which send him to the hospital). But despite the fact that inebriation often leads to bad things here, lessons are never learned.
Tom begins making mead. Tarquin says he once pickled his stash of marijuana. He later admits he's an alcoholic. Tom's mother gets a little tipsy from drinking Bloody Marys.
Other Negative Elements
Tom has trouble communicating with Violet, habitually telling her everything's fine when it's not. Suzie and Violet talk about birth control—and how much better Suzie's life would've been had she used some—in front of Suzie's children.
Along with other toilet humor, there's talk of a child soiling her pants. Audrey makes crude remarks about Violet's body getting older.
"This is your wedding!" Suzie tells Violet. "You only get a few of these!"
This, in a really weird way, sums up the philosophy—both positive and negative—we see in The Five-Year Engagement. Marriage is really cool, the film tells us. It's just uncertain as to exactly why.
Traditionally, the Christian sacrament of marriage has been a well-defined threshold: On one side you date—growing ever more familiar with the personality and character of the one you hope to marry. It's a time of discovery, where you explore your likes and dislikes; you allow your friendship and compatibility to either take root or wither. The other side is still about mutual self-discovery, but it's far more all-encompassing. You explore each other not just relationally, but sexually. Two become one, forever learning and growing together. It was—and still should be—a sacred act, a life-changing event.
But for Tom and Violet—and, really, for the lion's share of dating youth today—marriage is no longer that threshold, that doorway between one form of life and another. Couples have sex earlier and earlier. They move in together. Everything that marriage used to mean for couples is rendered moot.
Which makes the idealized end game of The Five-Year Engagement feel pretty pointless. Sure, it's great that Tom and Violet still see marriage as an important milestone, but they never explain why—and I wonder if even they know. Their story and their lives wouldn't look any different if they got married—except for a bit of ceremonial bling toted on their ring fingers. Oh, and another excuse to get blitzed.
Tom and Violet are pretty nice people who believe sex is too great to wait for, that living together for a while is the best preparation for living together for a while longer.
Marriage? For this couple, it's icing on the cake—sugar bereft of substance.