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Posted on Mon, Apr 30, 2012 : 5:57 a.m.

My irreconcilable differences with 'The Five Year Engagement'

By Bob Needham


Jason Segel in an Ann Arbor scene from "The Five Year Engagement."

Universal Pictures

What did you think of the movie? Leave a comment and / or vote in the poll at the end of this post.

I’m overly concerned with public image.

Not my own. I mean the image of the place I live.

It’s probably rooted in growing up in Metro Detroit—and loving it. I’ve never even lived in the city proper, but I still get annoyed and defensive whenever I hear a crack about Devil’s Night, or abandoned buildings, or the quality of American cars (my 1993 Ford Ranger has 160,000 miles on it and still runs fine, so there).

Believe it or not, I still carry around that attitude as a present-day resident of Ann Arbor, regularly acknowledged by the Bureau of Pointless Unverifiable Lists as one of the most awesome places in all of history. (What? We dropped to No. 8 this year? Damn you, Paris in the 1920s! You suck!)

So as I sat down to watchThe Five Year Engagement,” the major new romantic comedy that was largely shot in and takes place in Ann Arbor, I was interested—overly interested—to see how our more-than-fair city comes off.

And, well... did you catch the scene where Jason Segel repeatedly shouts “I hate it here!”?

Of course, it’s all played for comedy, and the movie needs a conflict, and Emily Blunt’s character seems pretty content. Still...

The town doesn’t exactly look bad, though the filmmakers certainly didn’t go out of their way to show off any of its physical appeal (the movie never shows the Huron River, or the Arb, or even a nice establishing shot of Main Street). The San Francisco scenes are all photographed with a reverent beauty; Ann Arbor, not so much. (Oddly, I'm almost certain—and I've seen the movie twice now—that the words "Ann Arbor" are never actually spoken, though that's clearly where it's set.)

What bothers me, I guess, is just that “The Five Year Engagement” doesn’t quite seem to understand Ann Arbor. And while I should probably just shrug that off, let’s face it: Potentially millions of people will have their impression of our town colored by this movie.

So if only to make myself feel better, and trying not to be too defensive about it, here are a few things about Ann Arbor that “Engagement” just gets wrong:

Foodie culture. This is what I found most annoying. I’m not sure I can think of a subject that Ann Arbor takes more seriously than food. Yet somehow, we’re supposed to believe that a sous chef from San Francisco—Segel's character, Tom—would feel wildly out of place here. Why exactly does the local restaurant staff find his move so hilarious? Come on—aside from Chicago, is there anywhere else in the heartland where he’d actually be more likely to fit in?

He winds up working at Zingerman’s—a “cool place,” as his fiancee, Violet, understatedly notes, and one that seems suited to Tom’s personality. It's a place that’s frequented by the likes of Mario Batali and universally praised by food experts, even those from the almighty coasts, yet he thinks it's beneath him? Besides, if he really didn’t like it there, surely his credentials could eventually get him a job at a high-quality restaurant (we do have some).

If Tom were the rising culinary star he’s supposed to be, he’d be treated like royalty here.

Yet the movie features a scene at a faculty party where everyone keeps mentioning the animated movie "Ratatouille." Because, apparently, that's the only frame of reference Michiganders have when someone says he's a chef.

All this wouldn’t matter to anyone who hasn’t lived here, but to me the whole premise just rings false. I think the mistake was in making the character a chef—it would have worked better if his job had been something that really would make him feel out of place here, like a Republican strategist or a recruiter for Ohio State.

Weather. The movie makes it look like winter lasts at least six months in Ann Arbor, when those of us who live here know it’s barely more than five. No, no, now I’m doing it.

But really, it would have been nice to have more than fleeting glimpses of our gorgeous falls and summers. Especially since many of the snow scenes were faked during filming last June. (If you think I'm exaggerating about the effect this stuff can have, an article about the movie on—this is a writer in Philadelphia, remember, not Miami—refers to the couple’s move “from the beautiful Bay Area to snowbound Ann Arbor.” Come on! "Snowbound"?)

Hunting. As Segel’s character starts to really lose it, under the guidance of a couple of buddies he becomes obsessed with deer hunting. Obviously hunting is big in Michigan, but it’s certainly not anything I would associate specifically with Ann Arbor—if anything, just the opposite. It’s almost as if the filmmakers got hip to Jeff Daniels’ now-classic Yooper comedy “Escanaba in da Moonlight” and decided to swipe some of that flavor for a few cheap laughs.

But Ann Arbor isn’t Escanaba. Wouldn’t it have been much truer (both to the character and the community), and potentially even funnier, if Tom had become obsessed with something like coffee roasting, or backyard chickens, or organic gardening? (The vermicomposting scene practically writes itself.)

• This is a minor point, but it's odd and a little disappointing that Tom and Violet spend five years in Ann Arbor and we never see any sign of the two things the city is probably best known for—Michigan football games and the Ann Arbor Art Fair.

• One other thing: Those frat guys who halfheartedly run across Liberty Street a couple of times carrying a giant stuffed fish—What exactly are they doing? If that’s just supposed to be random Wolverine hijinks, they need to look way more drunk.

Overall as a movie, I actually liked "The Five Year Engagement" quite a bit. It may be a little long, but it involves some very talented people, it offers a lot of real humor, and its structure makes it different from a typical romantic comedy.

But it could have been so much better. The director and producer have said nice things about Ann Arbor (and so has Segel)—even that the movie was partly intended as a "love letter" to the city. Actually watching the thing, though, I got a funny feeling that they're really just not that into us.

Check out previous coverage of "The Five Year Engagement" here.



Wed, Oct 10, 2012 : 2:44 p.m.

I know I'm late to comment on this, but I just rented this movie over the weekend and was delighted to read your review and know that I was not alone in what I was feeling while watching the movie. I was telling my friend about it and pretty much used all your examples to the letter before I even read this! The biggest issue I had was the impression that winter lasts forever (=misery) and not showing the other seasons or incredible beauty of Michigan or even Ann Arbor. The hunting was ridiculous and the restaurant hopping as well. You hit the mark on all points. The Ratatouille thing was obsurd and insulting to Michiganders where cuisine is very much appreciated, not just in Ann Arbor. Even though I didn't mind the movie, I came away from it disappointed due to the portrayal of Michigan from such a negative viewpoint.

Bob Needham

Wed, Oct 10, 2012 : 2:56 p.m.

Thanks! I've been meaning to buy the DVD and check out the bonus features, so this is a good reminder.


Mon, May 7, 2012 : 12:16 a.m.

I wholeheartedly agree with Bob. This movie did A2 no favors. On the foodie side. I'm a chef who did work in A2 for a few years, then moved to SF to increase my experience and knowledge. That said, anyone with even a passing interest in food would/should welcome a job at Zingermans for the short term. That character should realize that while he was making sandwiches, he could have gained a vast amount of knowledge of foods and ingredients from around the world. The character was purposely shallow, and it shows in this regard. That said, while the potato salad scene at Zingermans was sort of disgusting, they might as well have gone further and done a Tom Jones scene with all the wonderful foods there.


Tue, May 1, 2012 : 5:59 a.m.

Bob Needham endeared himself to me with his obvious affection for our town.


Tue, May 1, 2012 : 1:15 a.m.

Re: AA restaurants: "Come on—aside from Chicago, is there anywhere else in the heartland where he'd actually be more likely to fit in?" Are you kidding? Try Madison, Minneapolis, Indy., Detroit (at least its 'burbs), any of Ohio's 3 largest cities, Champaign ... . Apart from Zingerman's AA's restaurants are some of the most overpriced and overrated (can anyone say Palio or Gratzi?) I've ever experienced. Get over yourself.


Mon, Apr 30, 2012 : 10:21 p.m.

I didn't think it was a very accurate portayal of life in A2. It needed some photon torpedo's and maybe a visit from some Klingons.

Jacqueline Andrews

Mon, Apr 30, 2012 : 7:35 p.m.

I moved from Ann Arbor a dozen years ago, but my husband and I eagerly went to see the movie for shots of Tree Town. There is a good movie somewhere in the overlong film, and I have several quibbles: the words Ann Arbor were never mentioned; the love affair between the professor and the grad student was wretched to watch and reinforces all the bad stereotypes of professors and co-eds; the notion that the grad student got the tenure track job in part because of that love affair is even more wretched and besmirches UM's good name and the good name of all public higher education, all higher education, plus I don't believe it happens, especially not in this economy; all that snow; the notion that Zingerman's is some podunk joint that could not take advantage of the awesome skills of the man from San Fran. We live on the Hudson River now and are in New York often to eat. Ann Arbor has nothing to be ashamed of, trust me, when it comes to restaurants.

MD from ChiTown

Sun, Oct 7, 2012 : 5:24 a.m.

I also moved from Ann Arbor a little over a decade ago and am now living in Chicago. (I do get back a couple of times a year to see family and friends). I watched the movie On Demand with my husband who is from Chicago. I agree with most of your post. However, the story line of the professor/grad student relationship should not really reflect Michigan (although it does besmirch higher education), after all this plot line could exist in movies set at Harvard, UCLA or any other major college or university.

Jojo B

Mon, Apr 30, 2012 : 7:27 p.m.

RE: Hunting... Get out a bit more. No, it's not an "Ann Arbor thing," but it's a a Michigan thing and the state of Michigan happens to surround the sheltered A2 cocoon that some people live in. I'm friends with many hunters who live in or just outside of Ann Arbor and there are plenty of places to hunt a short distance outside of town. While I'm not a hunter myself, I understand its appeal to some and also realize that hunting doesn't exist only in the far-off UP.


Mon, Apr 30, 2012 : 7:21 p.m.

Bob The quality of restaurants in Ann Arbor has improved over the last 10-15 years, but the quality of the cooking in town is still mostly only acceptable compared to major cities. Yes, for a town of 100,000, we do fairly well, but compared to San Francisco; may as well try to compare the Wolverines against the San Francisco 49er's.

Bob Needham

Mon, Apr 30, 2012 : 7:59 p.m.

BobbyJohn, maybe so, but that's not my point. My point is that someone coming from a high-powered SF restaurant would be appreciated and respected here, not ignored and laughed at.


Mon, Apr 30, 2012 : 7:48 p.m.

BobbyJohn, if you want great food you'll have to go somewhere other than the high price fare of upscale joints. In Italy, the local Ostaria has superior fare to what the highest priced NYC restaurant has to offer.


Mon, Apr 30, 2012 : 7:17 p.m.

Uhh....hello people (AA Staff)...this is a movie. The location is fictional. Yes, it was shot in Ann Arbor, but that was only a film set and not the town in the movie. Ever hear of artistic license? Everything pointed out was for the sake of story line...not preserving the integrity of Ann Arbor. Watch a documentary or a "Pure Michigan" ad if that's what you are looking for.


Mon, Apr 30, 2012 : 7:34 p.m.

The location wasn't WAS set in Ann Arbor and referenced throughout the film though not by name. You've not seen the film.

Jacob Bodnar

Mon, Apr 30, 2012 : 7:05 p.m.

Here's the thing: this was not a documentary of Ann Arbor, it was a feature film that used Ann Arbor as a setting. It was not used as a setting to show Ann Arbor in a glowing light or to praise the city's many good qualities, it was used to drive the story. Honestly, I really didn't see any difference (outside of the story) of how they used establishing shots of San Francisco and Ann Arbor.

Jacob Bodnar

Mon, Apr 30, 2012 : 7:11 p.m.

At the end of the day, the point of the movie is to be funny - it's a comedy after all - all the intricacies of the setting and if they perfectly align are irrelevant to the writers and directors because people are watching the movie for the story and laughs, not to nitpick the small stuff.


Mon, Apr 30, 2012 : 6:32 p.m.

Bob, I'm guessing that your comments on experienced chefs coming to Ann Arbor being in high demand is based on your perception and not experience. Our experience has shown the complete opposite. Restaurants in this city repeatedly turned away a friend with 20 years of management and chef experience (with glowing recommendations), many (especially at the 'high end') admitting that they bank on cheap, replaceable University of Michigan students for "chefs." It's very sad!

say it plain

Tue, May 1, 2012 : 3:27 a.m.

That's exactly what I've heard about the vaunted 'restaurants' here...this is a college-town driven market, with no decent 'chef' culture at all, and it shows in the quality of the food unfortunately. Indeed, that the Segel character was a chef was perfect in its way, because the frustrations would be great if he were serious or decent but not the type to strike out on his own business-wise. The local establishments don't want experienced or interesting typically, and they gotta be laughing at what prices they get for very mediocre output as people seem so very convinced that they are lucky to live in restaurant-filled Ann Arbor.


Mon, Apr 30, 2012 : 7:31 p.m.

Not to mention that most restaurants have owner/chefs and they are looking for "cooks"


Mon, Apr 30, 2012 : 6:09 p.m.

As someone who grew up in Ann Arbor and now lives on the west coast, I was eager to see this movie. Sad to say, I agree with everything this author had to say. Apart from the main female character's obvious enjoyment and engagement as a graduate student (apart from the whole kissing a professor thing), I felt that this movie did Ann Arbor no favors. Ann Arbor is never mentioned by name. The main male lead essentially has a nervous breakdown and becomes Nanook of the North as the movie progresses. I'm sorry guys, although hunting is certainly a part of Michigan life, it isn't the only part and certainly isn't the only thing one can do for kicks in Ann Arbor. These things coupled with the fact that the movie was painfully long and desperately in need of editing left me (and the two unfortunate friends I'd dragged with me to the theater) shaking our heads at why this movie had been generally well-reviewed. It was like watching a train wreck!


Mon, Apr 30, 2012 : 7:30 p.m.

It wasn't well reviewed...and even the positive reviews mentioned it was too long


Mon, Apr 30, 2012 : 4:20 p.m.

Dude, it's just a movie. 99.99% of the world won't know the difference, no will they care.


Mon, Apr 30, 2012 : 8:07 p.m.

Bingo. Also, the movie isn't a documentary about Ann Arbor. It's fiction. If Segel's character liked it here we wouldn't have much of a plot. That would have shortened the movie considerably and I'm not sure that's such a bad thing. Lastly, don't take it so personally.

Alex Swary

Mon, Apr 30, 2012 : 3:45 p.m.

Do we know if the movie was specifically written to take place in Ann Arbor? It seems like the script could have originally just been written to take place in any generic college town, and the filmmakers only picked Ann Arbor thanks to Michigan's tax credit. If that were the case, it could explain why Ann Arbor isn't portrayed more accurately in the movie.

Bob Needham

Mon, Apr 30, 2012 : 4:21 p.m.

Actually, the director told Jenn McKee that it was intended for Ann Arbor from the beginning:

Lynn Liston

Mon, Apr 30, 2012 : 3:11 p.m.

Bob, looking at this realistically, I think the only meaningful question here is: which film gives the best portrayal of Ann Arbor? That cringe-worthy Pure Michigan commercial or The Five Year Engagement? I've lived here since 1970 and in TFYE, I could at least recognize the city of Ann Arbor and its unique culture, frats, foodies and all. I thought A2 gave a great performance as the place none of us ever want to leave.


Mon, Apr 30, 2012 : 3:06 p.m.

I think if you go into it with a loose attitude you can look at it as fun but I agree wholeheartedly with the reviewer. Further, we have a much higher population of smarties living here than anywhere else I can think of yet, somehow, the picture makes us look like a bunch of hicks. BTW I lived in SF. It gets cold there too. The humor about A2 was a little low brow for my taste. The Big Chill . . . NOT.

Chris Sallek

Mon, Apr 30, 2012 : 2:52 p.m.

I haven't seen the film yet but it doesn't sound like A2/MI was portrayed too negatively, which hopefully will silence the Michigan film office critics who claim that only violent films come to Detroit to shoot (in BOTH senses). Perhaps the film (as well as its star and production team) will encourage more film production in Michigan and our area.

Bob Needham

Mon, Apr 30, 2012 : 2:22 p.m.

When I mentioned Michigan football, I didn't necessarily even mean footage during a game -- though that would have been cool, and yes, as JMA2Y notes, "Answer This" managed to do it -- but even something like a scene of Tom unknowingly getting caught in game-day traffic could have been funny, and at least acknowledged that part of life here.


Mon, Apr 30, 2012 : 3:32 p.m.

Game day traffic-agree. But there's so much cool stuff and stuff that causes headaches (exactly how many lanes of traffic are currently downsized into and around A2 for example) to fit into every film about A2 or any town. No one really does it.

Lemmy Caution

Mon, Apr 30, 2012 : 1:51 p.m.

I agree that the bit about the SF sous chef not being able to find work in A2 suited to his culinary station is wildly unrealistic. That they decide to lean on those high-larious South Asian chefs to do the laughing for us is a sign that this script is made for TV--and not quality TV. That's not really funny. It's just fake laughter. It's also not sympathetic despite the cuteness of that big lug Jason Segel. (Producers demanded that he lose 30 pounds for the role to make it seem realistic that a hot brilliant women like Emily Blunt's character would "realistically" choose him as a mate. No comment.) It would have been better if Jason Segel's character had refused multiple offers at acceptable restos and then either sulked in self-righteous pity for his own greatness (precipitating a real relationship problem that many of us can relate to and that really WOULD prevent a wedding) OR created his own food truck or resto in A2 (a fairly cheap affair, after all). And perhaps he could have become very very busy with his food operation (precipitating a real relationship problem that many of us can relate to and that really WOULD prevent a wedding). Again and again, the writers took the easy way out. This is a mainstream Hollywood and Apatow-related habit, unfortunately, and it's based on using lamely plotted sitcoms like FRIENDS as your dramatic Bible.


Mon, Apr 30, 2012 : 3:30 p.m.

I agree except about "Friends". Loved the show. Getting tired of Segel and Apatow.


Mon, Apr 30, 2012 : 1:48 p.m.

I found the movie to be so-so but to show off A2 well. They made deer hunting seem as if it's a spring event. Both times they seemed to hunt after winter, not in October/November. There were at least two downtown Main Street and a couple State Street area shots. They did shoot in Ypsi-the scene where she's running down the street and gets hit by a car door was at least one. The snow falling across campus was real and we do get a lot of snow and it does stick around so I wasn't too unhappy with that. Since this winter was so mild, it was funny seeing an almost typical Michigan winter. I think it was the movie "Answer This" which had UM football scenes of crowds so some one's able to afford to show off the stadium. However, not everyone goes to football games and the movie's characters were from out of town. And I agree about the restaurants-we have so many along Main Street and so many eateries all over the area that coming here to cook should have been respected.

Bob Needham

Mon, Apr 30, 2012 : 2:06 p.m.

Yep, the hunting scenes were definitely shot in spring. I know there are several shots of parts of Main Street, but never an overall establishing shot just showing how nice it looks.


Mon, Apr 30, 2012 : 1:01 p.m.

The movie was also shot in Ypsilanti . . .

Bob Needham

Mon, Apr 30, 2012 : 1:36 p.m.

Yeah, I didn't mean to ignore that, but this column was already too long. Most of the Ypsilanti shooting had Ypsi standing in for Ann Arbor, but it turns out that one scene has Ypsi portraying San Francisco!


Mon, Apr 30, 2012 : 12:20 p.m.

There was at least two shots of the Law Quad in the movie.

Bob Needham

Tue, May 1, 2012 : 3:25 p.m.

Thanks. I removed that reference.


Mon, Apr 30, 2012 : 9:09 p.m.

One shot was a nice quick exterior establishing shot and the second shot had active students milling about the interior of the Law Quad- two kids were throwing a football back and forth.

Matt P

Mon, Apr 30, 2012 : 2:41 p.m.

I definitely saw at least one of those shots. I can't recall exactly what point, but I pointed it out to my wife.

Andy Price

Mon, Apr 30, 2012 : 2:20 p.m.

Yes, I remember one Law Quad shot, just as a quick establishing shot.

Bob Needham

Mon, Apr 30, 2012 : 1:47 p.m.

Wow, really? I was specifically watching for it the second time through and still missed it. How long of a look was it?

Post It Notes

Mon, Apr 30, 2012 : 11:17 a.m.

Ann Arbor is an amazing place to live. I'm really quite okay if it's just our own little secret. Besides... national audiences probably wouldn't have believed such a great place actually existed and they would hate themselves for NOT living here.


Mon, Apr 30, 2012 : 7:35 p.m.

I could not imagine anywhere else in the midwest (and most of the U.S.) that I would rather live than A2. It is not the best kept secret that we are so awesome but I agree that I am OK if it is.


Mon, Apr 30, 2012 : 10:30 a.m.

They would have had to pay to use any shots of the football games -- not only the huge amount they already paid UM to have the school name in the movie, but also the NCAA ( I believe The Blind Side paid the NCAA something like 5 Million dollars for the school references and stock footage)...hunting is the typical stereotype of Michigan when you live outside of Michigan (when I moved to Ann Arbor from NYC people gave me cards and gifts with deer and bears on them)...They were not here during Art Fair but if they were they would still not have used it. There is noting " pretty" in any establishing shots of those white roofed fair shacks and t-shirt stands.

Craig Lounsbury

Mon, Apr 30, 2012 : 11:39 a.m.

"not only the huge amount they already paid UM to have the school name in the movie, " interesting, do you know how much? Its not like they couldn't have picked from a couple dozen Universities for a backdrop.