You may've heard about the disappointing performance of The Five Year Engagement, which was bested at the box office this past weekend by Think Like a Man. Full disclosure: I work at the studio that released this Nicholas Stoller-directed, Judd Apatow-produced comedy, but I come here not to praise Engagement, nor to bury it. I just think that anyone who's currently writing a romantic comedy can draw a few helpful lessons from the movie. Call it a teachable moment.
1) Nobody likes too long.
With the inevitability that its self-fulfilling prophecy title suggested, reviews from all who saw the movie led with the obvious: "Dude, it felt like five years!" This is what happens when you neglect the hoary adage, Get in late and get out early. It's also a pitfall with titles this specific, i.e. The audience knows that it's in for this long a stretch, so a "we're ahead of you" impatience is bound to set in. But generally, comedy should be fast in pace and short in length: leave 'em laughing, and leave 'em wanting more.
You could easily cut half an hour out of Engagement's two hour and four minute running time by making judicious edits from start to finish. So why didn't the guys who made it do that? Blame Judd Apatow. Yes, he is a comedy genius, and the most influential (for better and worse) auteur of the comedy and rom-com genres today, but all of his movies are overlong. 2005's 4o Year Old Virgin is 116 minutes; 2007's Knocked Up is 129; 2009's Funny People is a whopping 146. The latter tanked, but last year the Apatow-produced Bridesmaids clocked in at 125 and was a smash. So in Apatow's world, long still rules.
Good for him - usually- but not for you. Today's comedy spec script has a page count sweet spot of 105. Steve Carrell and Tina Fey's Date Night was a brisk 88 minutes. Hangover Part 2? 102. Keep it quick and short, and your buyers and audience will love you. Nobody likes too long.
2) Date night audiences want to feel good.
You'd think this would be obvious. At their core, romantic comedies are propaganda for procreation, serving as stimulation for the romantically-inclined. Opening weekend, most folks who show up for a rom-com would like to get laid and/or to fall in love, and if both or neither aren't a likely outcome for them after the show, they'll settle for the vicarious thrill of romantic arousal (Those were the days..!).
This is one reason why most successful rom-coms are upbeat adventures with a steadily escalating story arc. They energetically track the trajectory from like to love; they ascend, constructed to maximally exploit the fun of the chase. We're on our way, we're almost there, we're going to get it and oh-no! We might not make it... the infamous "dark moment" - and then, Score! We're Mr. and Mrs. Happy.
Let us give screenwriters Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller their well-deserved props. I heartily, genuinely applaud them for a kind-of brilliant story concept: Engagement begins at the point where most romantic comedies end, with a happy marriage proposal, and then has the temerity to ask, What might happen next, in our conflicted, contemporary 20-30-something's world? It was a brave and risky idea to pursue. And by the way, there are some great laughs in this movie, most of them in the more enjoyable first half (though a late set piece, which has Emily Blunt and Alison Brie channeling a couple of Muppets, may be destined for Classic status).
But Engagement's "dark moment" is nearly ninety minutes. What we're witnessing is the slow, increasingly dark dissolution of a fine romance. And whether you like or dislike the movie as a movie, this is date night romantic comedy poison. Way to bum out our pot trip, man - despite the eventual happy ending, by going so graphically against the rom-com grain, you've effectively harshed the audience's romantic mellow. And given that the movie's downward trajectory is telegraphed in its trailer, as this canny article from Jezebel points out, it's no wonder that the mainstream dating crowd opted for the upbeat swing of the into-the-chase, who'll win the gender-battle? movie Think Like a Man. Even though it's all about, like, you know... black people.
3) It's the characters, stupid.
I return, predictably, to Living the RomCom's favorite hobby-horse. Jason Segel was great in Forgetting Sarah Marshall (by Engagement's same creative team), but while his character is named Tom this time around, he's essentially... Jason Segel. Emily Blunt knocked my socks off in The Devil Wears Prada, but while she's incandescently sexy-lovely as this movie's Violet, she's also kind of a drag.
It's not just that the actors' chemistry is wanting, it's that on the page, there isn't a whole lot to them. The story's deck is stacked against poor Violet, while Tom is often reduced to repetitious mopery. So it's hard to root for either one. Tellingly, their central conflict isn't specific to character - the problem is mostly her career versus his, as opposed to something more distinctive having to do with who she is, and he is. Which in this character-driven genre isn't good.
Tellingly, the supports register with far more force - the over-used Chris Parnell, even a wasted Mindy Kalling. Alison Brie's Suzie and unlikely mate Alex (Chris Pratt) nearly walk away with it.
If the supports in your rom-com are stealing the show, consider Engagement as a cautionary tale. If the down side of the romance is taking all the focus? Reconsider. And if it's time for your story to move on, get on with it and be gone.