‘The Five-Year Engagement’ and 21st Century Relationships

By  · Published on May 1st, 2012

Imagine what some of our most beloved romantic films would look like if they were made in the 21st century. Laura and Alec of David Lean’s Brief Encounter could have managed their secret meetups over text. Harry and Sally could have checked each others’ okcupid accounts before explaining every aspect of what they seek in a partner over a cross-country road trip. And Ilsa would never have had to get on that plane because, y’know, the war’s over. This is a fruitless endeavor, I know, but it brings one thing into light which poses both problems and opportunities for the contemporary romance film, specifically the romantic comedy: politics, economic conditions, shifting gender roles, and technological evolution means different kinds of relationships and, thus, different kinds of romantic movies.

How can the 21st century romance film expect the wedding-bell-chiming happy ending to work in a society full of emerging adults who feel less and less of a need to get married? How can new romantic comedies account for the fact that today’s working professional must move constantly – putting all their human relationships at risk – in order to find a job that suits them without only making films about the uber-privileged? Will there ever be a mainstream romantic comedy featuring a non-monogomous or non-heteronormative protagonist? Several recent screen romances have attempted to tackle the changing nature of relationships – or, at least, the type of relationship typically depicted in the Hollywood romance.

Relocate Your Life

Nick Stoller’s The Five-Year Engagement (co-written by star Jason Segel) tackles several aspects of 21st century relationships with sincerity and admirable complexity. Segel’s Tom and Emily Blunt’s Violet are by no means the first couple who have had to move to make their relationship accommodate the career path of one of its members, but this seems to be an evermore common issue for contemporary couples, both because of a competitive and uncertain economy and third-wave feminism’s dismantling of the assumed privilege of the male in the professional and geographic determination of the couple. While that last sentence by no means contained anything surprising or revelatory, it’s rare to see a mainstream romantic comedy tackle these prevalent issues of place and profession at all, much less this prominently.

Globalization has made relocation not only a probability, but arguably an inevitability, for today’s working professionals: one can apply to jobs anywhere (and swiftly) in ways that couldn’t have happened twenty years ago, and the lack of proportion between qualified applicants and available jobs for specialized professions (like certain fields of academia, represented here through Violet) make geographic flux look more and more like an opportunity rather than a compromise, even when one has to leave the town they love. Home, then, is where you end up. The real compromise, as evidenced most thoroughly by Segel’s character (though more subtly through Violet’s as well), is how to change your life in order to make the relationship work, and this brings up some troubling problems about one’s desire for professional success versus a stable relationship, or confronting the fact that meaningful friendships might ultimately be fleeting. True love can sure get its fair share of tests these days.

Five-Year Engagement consists of nearly two inconsistently-paced hours of navigating the difficulties of maintaining a relationship, making necessary compromises, and learning how to communicate. The slow pacing that many critics have held against the film I think works in its favor – it’s necessary for a narrative about the naïve wait for perfection. But that’s why the spontaneous wedding which closes the film – as charming as it is – rang completely false.

I would give a spoiler alert here, but this is a romantic comedy – we know, more or less, how it’s going to end. After two complex hours of mining the problems of any meaningful relationship (some inevitable, some put-upon), the hurried ending then suggests not getting married itself is the problem. There is no discussion of whether Violet will take the tenure-track job in Michigan and Tom moves his taco truck up there, or whether she’ll compromise and stay in San Francisco, which would simply bring about a gender reversal of the couple’s central problem. They’re married; what other questions need to be asked? Five-Year Engagement then falls into the romantic comedy cliché that’s persisted from the Cary Grant/Katherine Hepburn movies up until now – the film presents such insurmountable roadblocks for the central couple that it can’t find an adequate solution, and thus resorts to a false sense of closure.

The Space Between Us

Along with the inevitability of relocating for work in competitive markets comes the other option for 21st century couples: a long-distance relationship. This way couples can maintain their career path through compromising their time together in hopes of reuniting when they have accumulated enough money, power, and agency (or gain an ability to compromise in the most difficult way). Modern technologies have made the 21st century relationship something easier to manage; Skype, texting, and other forms of immediate communication have allowed long-distance couples to maintain a sense of proximity and intimacy despite the physical distance. Of course, technology proves to be no substitute for actually being there with the same person.

Two recent-ish movies have addressed the 21st century long-distance relationship, Drake Doremus/Ben York Jones’s Like Crazy (2011) and Nanette Burnstein/Geoff LaTulippe’s Going the Distance (2010). The former drama feels more like a movie about co-dependence, where the two central characters desired to be together but were rarely willing to seriously put in the work that a long-distance relationship requires. Going the Distance, a comedy, deals with the issue of airline-mile-racking relationships more seriously (along with Five-Year Engagement, maybe comedy is the perfect genre for films about relationships that involve absurdly difficult decisions).

Going the Distance handles the quirks of long-distance relationships with a degree of sincerity that suggests intimate knowledge of such a situation by the film’s creators: the frustration in not being with the other person, the incredible anticipation in flying to see them, the attempts at maintaining sexual intimacy through technology, the incredible nostalgia of way-back-when you lived in the same city together, worries about not moving forward like approximate couples do, the whole “makes the heart grow fonder” mess, and the constant feeling that the present situation is far less than ideal. And Going the Distance strikes a measured balance with its ending. It shows that long-distance relationships, even well-planned ones unlike the relationship depicted in Like Crazy, can be unsustainably difficult. Instead of the “happily-ever-after” reunion, Going the Distance lets the complex serendipity of life’s chance encounters take hold, neither closing the door on the couple we’ve spent the running time with nor creating a definite pathway to their inevitable reunion.

Which brings me to my final point. The break-up seems to be gaining more of a major role in today’s romantic comedy (or, at least, in the romantic comedy worth watching, of which there are sadly few – I’m looking at you, Garry Marshall). These films follow the classic formula – couple gets together, finds happiness, encounter problems, distance themselves, then reunite – except the distancing component is far greater, and this plot maneuver is depicted in ways that many relationships definitively end. Where the distancing moment was often rather brief in they heyday of 30s and 40s Hollywood romantic comedies, this moment in Five-Year Engagement and Going the Distance takes place states away and/or is followed by subsequent committed (though perhaps comparably inadequate) relationships.

Furthermore, movies like The Break-Up (2006) and (500) Days of Summer (2009) have placed the couple’s inevitable non-reunion front-and-center, as if the only way the classical formula can be broken is if it’s overtly declared to be the premise of the film. It seems that the romantic comedy is at a turning point, then, where it must depict the problems particular to many contemporary relationships in order to stay relevant, but these films also have the difficult task of negotiating with the classic formula in order to accommodate new realities. Can the easy closure of the Grant/Hepburn formula resonate anymore, or does a whole second movie’s worth of problems begin where Five-Year Engagement ends?

Relationships are changing, that much is certain. It’ll be interesting to see if, how, and to what degree the romantic comedy changes as well.

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