The Five Year Engagement: Jason Segel’s Interfaith Worldview
Plenty of movies depict interfaith couples: Exodus, Annie Hall, When Harry Met Sally. The new romantic comedy The Five Year Engagement chronicles the courtship of chef Tom (Jewish), and graduate student Violet (Christian). Actor Jason Segel, the leading man and script co-writer, happens to hail from an interfaith family himself. So I went to see the movie, searching for traces of Segel’s view on interfaith life.
Last year, Segel co-wrote and starred in The Muppets. The first time I heard “Man or Muppet,” the Grammy-nominated song from that movie, the song immediately struck me as a metaphor for the choices the world forces on interfaith children. I would love to find out whether Segel ever thought of the song in those terms.
Generally, I have to say I am not a fan of the work of Judd Apatow, producer of The Five Year Engagement. Though I appreciate the sharp and witty dialogue, I prefer my romance without Apatow’s signature drunken vomiting, potty humor and crude guy talk, all of which appear in this film. The Five Year Engagement also runs too long, with a rambling chronology. On the other hand, the film centers on a real and bittersweet exploration of the dilemma for both partners over work, geography, and marriage.
Religious difference plays very little role in this film’s plot. Segel has said that some of the religion material ended up on the cutting-room floor. I like to imagine that by minimizing religion as a source of conflict, Segel, as an adult interfaith child, is making a positive statement about the possibilities of interfaith love.
We do get a glimpse of religious difference in each of the successive wedding plans, as the couple repeatedly approach and then back off from tying the knot. In the first wedding planning session with all four parents and a clergy member representing each side, the Jews announce that the men will wear yarmulkes, and the Christians counter with a plan to have communion at the wedding. Interfaith lesson #1: passive-aggression, willful religious ignorance and hardline negotiation are not effective interfaith communication skills. The wedding plan falls through.
In their next attempt, the couple approach a Chabad rabbi at the last minute, who asks if the bride is Jewish. The couple dissembles and the rabbi dances at the engagement party (in a barbecue joint specializing in pork!). But the wedding again falls through. Interfaith lesson #2: dishonesty about who we are and last-minute random religious choices are not helpful. The wedding plan falls through.
In the end (spoiler alert, though you will see it coming from a mile away), the couple succeed in getting married. Choosing between a Christian, an “extreme Christian” (who appears to be Eastern Orthodox), a Buddhist, a Rabbi, and a justice of the peace, Tom chooses the lay officiant. Cue the happily-ever-after credits. Interfaith lesson #3: the desire for a sense of balance often leads interfaith couples to choose a secular officiant. If both members of the couple are secular people, this works fine.
For those of us who want balance, but also care deeply about religion, finding clergy to co-officiate is the alternative to a justice of the peace. But this solution would have been too complex for the rushed wedding in this movie, and perhaps too much religion for the fictional couple in question.
In a recent interview with the Jewish Journal, Segel described his upbringing this way: “My dad’s Jewish, and my mom’s Christian, so I was raised with a little bit of everything.” Note that he introduces his own religious background with a description of balance, rather than choice. His lament is familiar to all of us who felt excluded growing up as patrilinial Jews: “I wasn’t considered Jewish at Hebrew school because my mother isn’t Jewish, and I wasn’t considered Christian at Christian school. What occurred to me is, ‘This is not God’.”
Segel had a Bar Mitzvah. But when asked if he considers himself a “cultural Jew” he replies: “Yes. But in terms of organized religion, again, I think the notion of ‘I know better than someone else’ is wildly arrogant.” Here, Segel sounds to me like a classic adult interfaith child. Having lived the experience of growing up in interfaith families, we tend to see the world from more than one viewpoint, and we tend to question the idea that only one religious tradition could be the true path. We are also likely to feel alienated from religious institutions that have rejected us.
Rather than bitterness, Segel’s fairytale ending expresses optimism that interfaith couples can achieve happiness. For those of us who grew up in functional interfaith families, interfaith love is not just a romantic fiction. We need to stand up and be counted, to let the world know that in spite of the obstacles our parents still love each other, that we are not confused, and that we draw creative power from our double-belonging.