Recently watched The Five-Year Engagement, the Jason Segel/Emily Blunt romantic comedy from the Apatow studio. It pretty much plays out exactly like every other Apatow flick does–that is to say like virtually every romantic comedy ever, but with more dick and poop jokes–but it did have a few surprises. Not the least of them is that a large part of the plot revolves around the University of Michigan, after Segel’s character leaves behind a successful chef career in San Francisco in support of his girlfriend’s (Blunt) academic pursuits. Maybe it’s because I didn’t pay attention to the trailer (which is REALLY OBVIOUS) and don’t watch enough TV to have picked up on from commercials, but I wasn’t expecting that sort of locale to be used. Nor was I expecting a comedy, an Apatow-related comedy no less, to come really close to nailing what it’s like to live in the Mitten.
Not to say it’s a perfect in this regard: the script (co-written by Segel) more or less adheres to the Hollywood principle of “Flyover Country”: that is, everything on the coasts (particularly New York, L.A., and San Fran) as being the only places in the United States one could expect to have a fun, successful life, and anything that doesn’t have a view of the ocean is just kinda lame and rural and mediocre. Or maybe that’s just how Segel’s character sees it, since he’s used to bright and sunny California all-year round, and now finds himself having to scrape ice off windshields and settling for a food service job that’s less prestigious than the one he had. Either way, there’s a couple things that irritated me: first, that the U of M is located in Ann Arbor, which is about as far removed from half the stuff Segel encounters in the two-plus hours the film runs as it gets (there isn’t, for example, a big hunting culture in the Arbor), featuring a lot of upscale retailers and ‘hipster’ type of hotspots like record stores and even a few arthouse theaters. Second is that everyone just refers to the entire state of “Michigan” as where Segel has moved to and never as “Ann Arbor.” Hollywood likes to do this a lot, most egregiously with other countries or even continents (“Hello, welcome to Africa, home of the African people!”), and it never ceases to be annoying. Michigan, as it turns out, is a pretty big state, ranging from gentrified, bourgeois cities like Ann Arbor and immigrant hotspots such as Dearborn to more rural areas closer to the borders of Ohio and Indiana to the practically untamed wilderness of the Upper Peninsula (probably the best equivalent to the kind of cultural gap between the Upper and Lower would be Quebec and the rest of Canada). It might be too much to ask that a movie made by people born on the coasts to understand this, but at the very least it wouldn’t hurt to address its setting properly.
Well, damn, that actually comes across quite negative, doesn’t it? Completely unintentional, since, plot notwithstanding, Five-Year Engagement really does get a lot right: when Segel tries to get a new chef job, the montage highlights a rather decent variety of establishments, including a high-end Indian restaurant, before he’s hired by Zingerman’s, an upscale deli; one of the better recurring gags is a group of drunk students running shirtless through the streets (often in the middle of winter–yes, this happens), culminating in them carrying a trophy marlin; and another character, a charming snake of a psychology professor (played by Rhys Ifans) cracks a joke about Ohio State fans during one of his lectures. Throughout the movie, Emily Blunt is shown enjoying the perks of the University’s academic setting, and alternately going out to drink with her fellow post-docs in one of the many pubs, bars, and taverns that are in Ann Arbor and nearby Ypsilanti. They’re the movie’s high points.
Even the hunting stuff I don’t mind, despite it being not as much of a thing in such a metro/leftist region of the state, because Segel’s growing of mutton-chops and his focus on preparing everything in venison gets across just how weirdly consuming the whole thing can become when you feel like you’ve got nothing else to latch onto (even the locals get a bit weirded out by how far gone he becomes). It also leads to my favorite part of the movie: the little girl saying “I’m Pocahantas” and firing the crossbow at Blunt. I can also buy it because Segel has essentially become emasculated–being second fiddle to his girlfriend and her rising career while he has to start over–which, psychologically, makes the prospect of something as ‘manly’ as hunting deer seem a lot more appealing to someone trying to cover up their feelings of inadequacy. Such a move to so different a city would also lead to culture shock and an instinctive focus on how crappy and stupid and weird the new home is (it’s cold, there’s ten feet of snow in winter, and Brian Posehn plays your pickle-obsessed boss).
All in all, the movie gets that Michigan has plenty of idiosyncracies, and has fun with that for the time it takes place in Ann Arbor. That it does so while operating as yet another formulaic Judd Apatow joint is not just surprising, but impressive.