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Maybe knot?

Getting married isn't as cut-and-dried as it used to be

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After six children and more than six years of being together, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are finally tying the knot. The big tabloid question -- after the obligatory query about Jennifer Aniston's tragic-woman-spurned reaction -- is why marry now? In fact, why marry at all, when the line between being married and non-married looks so fuzzy?

Brangelina seem to be going through a more glamorous version of a common regular-person issue. If you already have a mortgage, some kids, a dog, two guinea pigs and a few in-laws, do you really need a wedding as well?

More to the point, do you even have time to plan a wedding? (Or the money for a reception? Or the energy for a wedding night?)

Questions about the complicated state of contemporary commitment are at the heart of the zeitgeisty new movie The Five-Year Engagement. In this easy, messy, funny rom-com, Tom and Violet (played with loosey-goosey charm by Jason Segel and Emily Blunt) pick a wedding date and then have to keep putting it off.

In bygone times, this involved yearning and a lot of long, flowery letters. These days, Violet and Tom are already living together. They're also balancing two careers, geographical exigencies, family expectations and the confusions of early-adult identity.

That's where the zeitgeist thing comes in. Segel, who co-wrote the script with director Nicholas Stoller, recognizes that the rom-com genre is still using a template that's been around since Jane Austen's time: All the action leans toward the wedding, which is both the culmination of the courtship and the beginning of the upcoming (and always off-screen) marriage.

But this timeline is out the window for many modern real-life couples, as the Brangelina story rather famously suggests. In the case of The Five-Year Engagement, the movie actually kicks off with a marriage proposal. The comedy then comes from Tom and Violet trying to sort through picky little wedding details at the same time they're having big, sticky, married-people issues.

Back in the 1950s, it was a lot more clear-cut. You were married or you weren't, and most young people were eager to claim marriage as a marker of adulthood, a public declaration that their lives were starting to take shape. (And of course, the fact that you weren't supposed to have sex until after the wedding tended to focus the mind wonderfully.)

These days, most people aren't saving sex for the honeymoon, and many seem ambivalent about the whole "being a grown-up" thing. And with the average age of marriage coming later, wedding planning hits just when two people are busy juggling work, school and the strange 21st-century burden of so much choice.

Mad Men, which has spent this season charting some seismic social changes, is interested in the moment when the '50s concept of happily-ever-after started to shift. Last week's episode took us back to a time when living together was, in many ways, more momentous than just getting hitched. Peggy is expecting a marriage proposal from her longtime boyfriend when he pops a different question: Why not move in together? Peggy's very Catholic mother, for whom the phrase "living in sin" has literal weight, is appalled. Joan, on the other hand, finds it delicious and thrilling and modern that Peggy plans to "shack up." (Joan tries out that new expression with a beautifully raised eyebrow.)

Move that cultural moment forward a few decades, though, and shacking up has been stripped of its sexy, forbidden allure. Living together now has a lot of the quotidian comfiness and everyday problems of, well, marriage. That's the poignant little truth that makes The Five-Year Engagement funny, confused and sweetly anticlimactic.

I wonder if Brangelina will see the movie before they send out their save-the-date cards.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 5, 2012 E3

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