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Foundas on Film: The Five-Year Engagement, Safe, and Sound of My Voice

By Scott Foundas on April 26, 2012

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The title of the new Judd Apatow production, The Five-Year Engagement, refers to the amount of time two betrothed twentysomethings spend drifting in and out of each other’s lives, struggling with commitment issues and career considerations, trying to figure out if they really are Mr. and Mrs. Right, all the while indefinitely postponing their impending nuptials. Shlubby everydude Tom (Jason Segel) is a San Francisco sous chef with a promising future. Pert British expat Violet (Emily Blunt) is a psychologist seeking a postdoctorate University berth. They meet-cute at a costumed New Year’s Eve party—him dressed as a giant bunny rabbit, her as Princess Diana—and one year later he pops the question, to which she responds in the affirmative. Then fate deals the first of several trump cards in the form of a lucrative two-year research position for her at the University of Michigan. And so into the wilds of the Midwest they go—which, as shown here, really is a wilderness, where the best job Tom can find is sandwich maker at a local deli and, aided and abetted by a similarly emasculated “faculty husband,” he regresses into a neo-primitive, hunter-gatherer state, complete with mutton chops and crossbow. (Michigan life hasn’t looked this bleak on film since Roger and Me.)

The Five-Year Engagement, which was directed by Nicholas Stoller from a script he co-wrote with Segel, offers a variation on a signature Apatow theme—postadolescent indecisiveness—and, more acutely, the Sisyphean struggle of an emotionally stunted man-child to become a good partner in a lasting relationship. It’s a subject Segel and Stoller themselves touched on in their previous, Apatow-produced collaboration, Get Him to the Greek, where the young record producer played by Jonah Hill found himself torn between professional ambitions and his commitment to his medical resident girlfriend. And in fits and starts, The Five-Year Engagement gets at the messy give-and-take of grown-up relationships—the desire to support the other person without losing too much of yourself in the process—with a candor that’s rare in Hollywood’s plasticine rom-com universe.

More often, the movie reduces everything to sitcom levels of tidiness and routine—a particular disappointment coming in the wake of another nuptial-themed Apatow production, Bridesmaids, which was tough and sharp and uncompromising in all the ways that The Five-Year Engagement ultimately takes the easy way out. At the lowest point of their relationship, when Violet and Tom go their separate ways and find solace in the arms of cartoonish new partners—a flamboyant Welsh psych professor (a gregarious Rhys Ifans) and a Zumba-obsessed California bimbo (Dakota Johnson, daughter of Don and Melanie Griffiths), respectively—the deck is so clearly stacked against these unions that pit boss Apatow should have demanded a rewrite. (In last year’s superb Sundance winner, Like Crazy, a similarly conflicted pair of on-again, off-again Anglo-American lovebirds were allowed to have rebound romances that were as complex and plausible as their own, so that we left the theater wondering if the characters might not have been better off staying with those people rather than reuniting.)

The Five-Year Engagement sets its sights lower and aims for more broadly comic, conventionally satisfying payoffs, and it works up to a point, with likable performers, a generous laugh quotient, and a few moments of genuinely inspired, improvisational lunacy—along with the de rigueur penis and vomit jokes. Apatow, who deserves to be regarded as the preeminent figure in American comedy right now, has shown an uncanny knack for fostering bright young comic talent, and because he loves comics so much and is so fascinated by their process—the way John Cassavetes loved Method actors and their process—his productions tend to brim with scene-stealing supporting players, amusing non sequiturs, and running times (124 minutes in the case of The Five-Year Engagement) that few comedies in the history of moving pictures have shouldered without eventually buckling under. Here, that smorgasbord extends to Violet’s competitive postdoc colleagues (The Office star Mindy Kaling, Randall Park and Kevin Hart), and the shotgun marriage of Tom’s doofus best friend (Chris Pratt) to Violet’s flighty sister (Alison Brie, who has the wonderfully off-kilter rhythms of the young Shelley Duvall or Ellen Greene). The latter two in particular beg their own Get Him to the Greek-style spinoff, but here they only add to the movie’s shapeless, stop-and-go feel. Even as one who finds Ms. Blunt’s comely charms nigh irresistible—doubly so when placed in a film containing not one, not two, but three Van Morrison songs—I left the screening of The Five-Year Engagement feeling faintly exhausted.

But if you’re sympathetic to Apatow (as I am), you may find yourself taking the good with the bad, because he and his acolytes (like Stoller and the more accomplished Adam McKay, Paul Feig and Greg Mottola) come from a place of such admirable intent, striving to restore a personal touch to the ever-more impersonal business of making mainstream Hollywood movies, to leaven the dick jokes with a genuine curiosity about the mysteries of attraction and the hard work of relationships, and to populate the screen with faces and bodies that don’t fit the conventional movie-star mold. The Five-Year Engagement is far from their best work, and yet it does its own small part to celebrate the human in the age of the omnipresent superhero.

The challenges of career versus coupledom also weigh on the protagonists of the no-budget sci-fi shocker Sound of My Voice, a pair of enterprising documentary filmmakers who infiltrate a mysterious San Fernando Valley cult by posing as two of its newest recruits. Willing to do whatever it takes to get the shot, Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius) enter the group’s inner sanctum with a small camera hidden in a pair of glasses and the transmitter (for lack of anywhere to conceal it in their hospital-gown uniforms) in Peter’s stomach—a strategy that seems risky even before a group “purging” session ratchets up the tension to a squirm-inducing level.

The leader of the cult, who calls herself Maggie, claims to be from the future—the year 2054 to be precise—when civil war has laid waste to the land and bands of survivors clandestinely roam the countryside (think The Terminator by way of The Walking Dead). Maggie has been sent back, she says, to prepare a chosen few for the coming storm and lead them to a safer place. And given that these claims are being propagated in the basement of a nondescript suburban home somewhere in the San Fernando Valley, where a comically elaborate “secret handshake” is required for entry, they seem especially ridiculous. Until, that is, Maggie herself enters the room and manages to silence even the skeptics with her forthright conviction and entrancing, far-off gaze. Away from the cult—the members meet nightly, then return to their real lives by day—Peter professes to see right through Maggie’s hocus-pocus, but Lorna can see that he’s gradually falling deeper under her spell.

Maggie is played by the 29-year-old Brit Marling, who co-wrote the screenplay with first-time director Zal Batmanglij, and who also starred in and co-wrote last summer’s auspicious Another Earth, in which she played a tragedy-stricken young woman seeking to restart her life on a newly discovered avatar of our planet. Sound of My Voice is the more striking work, even if it too ultimately feels more like an ingenious pilot for a J.J. Abrams-esque series than a fully developed feature film. Either way, there’s no mistaking that Marling is a formidable double threat. As an actress, you can’t take your eyes off her—with her tall, slender figure, long blond hair, and halting, husky voice, she recalls the young Laura Dern, but with a faint sadness that suggests she’s seen the worst in people, and maybe in herself. In one showstopping scene, Maggie agrees to sing a song from “the future,” then breaks into a heartfelt acoustic rendition of “Dreams” by The Cranberries. When she’s confronted about the “old” song, she defends herself so matter-of-factly that we’re sucked right back into her elaborate charade. Like Peter, we’d follow her anywhere. Besides which, she just might be telling the truth.

Like Shane Carruth’s dazzling Primer from 2004, Sound of My Voice is a too-rare example of intelligent, ambitious genre filmmaking done with the extremely minimal resources usually reserved for Jean Eustache-lite explorations of a filmmaker’s own navel. What Marling and Batmanglij lack in heavy machinery, they make up for in character and gripping drama. Now there’s an idea that’s positively futuristic.

Last but not exactly least, Jason Statham—that wry British bruiser—is back on screen this week in Safe, a cheerfully preposterous action thriller set on the streets of New York in which Statham’s ex-cop turned cage fighter turned homeless recluse becomes the sole protector of a 10-year-old Chinese math prodigy (newcomer Catherine Chan) caught in the crossfire of the Chinese triads, the Russian mob, and a very corrupt NYPD. (Turns out she has the combination to a hotly desired safe locked away in her steel-trap mind.) Got all that? It hardly matters, because the movie works best as a brusque abstraction. What Drive did for the existential neo-noirs of Walter Hill and Michael Mann, Safe does for the artless carnage-fests of studio worker bees like Mark Lester (Commando) and John Irvin (Raw Deal).

Indeed, it’s easy to imagine the ’80s-era Schwarzenegger playing Statham’s role here, plowing his way through a nonstop gauntlet of bullets, beatings, vehicular mayhem, property destruction, and risible ethnic caricatures, accompanied by an imperiled pipsqueak with her own arsenal of acerbic one-liners. (Had the movie been made then, the supporting cast, which includes Chris “the ex-Mr. Susan” Sarandon and Chinatown’s James Hong, might well have been the same.) Safe is as silly as it sounds and then some, but often enjoyably so, especially when Statham is scampering about atop a speeding D train or using another human body to cushion his fall from a high-rise window. He does it all with a wink and a grizzled smile that says there are worse ways to pick up a paycheck, and who’s to argue?

Once upon a time, the writer-director Boaz Yakin made an impressive debut with Fresh, another New York City crime story that had a hyper-intelligent child at its center. Then he embarked on a strange Hollywood career that has included everything from a Jerry Bruckheimer sports drama (Remember the Titans) to a Dakota Fanning comedy (Uptown Girls) and the scripts for sequels to Dirty Dancing and From Dusk Till Dawn. Safe isn’t his most elegant achievement, but in some ways it suggests a return to form. The body count is high, the running time is short, and the city seethes with barely concealed menace.

The Five-Year Engagement and Safe are now playing nationwide. Sound of My Voice is now playing in New York and Los Angeles.

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