The Last Five Years (2014) / Musical-Romance
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for sexual material, brief strong language and a drug image
Running Time: 94 min.
Cast: Anna Kendrick, Jeremy Jordan
Director: Richard LaGravenese
Screenplay: Richard LaGravenese (based on the play by Jason Robert Brown)
Review published February 3, 2015
The Last Five Years is a modestly budgeted adaptation of the 2001 Jason Robert Brown international hit stage musical, incorporating most of its dialogue through singing rather than conversational moments. It tells the five-year relationship from boom to bust between rising star author Jamie (Jordan, Joyful Noise) and struggling actress Cathy (Kendrick, Cake) , related from the dissolution back to its beginning, then alternating between Jamie's side, which always moves forward, and Cathy's which is told in reverse.
As aspiring artists in their respective fields in New York, Jamie and Cathy are at the same place in their lives at the same time, both struggling but hopeful about their future. Their relationship is solid, and their future becoming even more so when Jamie is approached by Random House about publishing his first book, and it eventually becomes a best-seller. Things don't come as easily for Cathy, who not only gets turned down time and again, but with Jamie's success, she has to compete for his time with his career of book tours and company parties, and things get even worse when the only acting gig she can find is in a local summer theatre in Ohio. He wants her to be more supportive and understanding, while she just wants to have her husband back and be the most important thing in his life again, but neither is willing to fully put artistic dreams aside in place of relationship.
Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan are fantastic in their respective roles as the happy/unhappy couple. Kendrick has really come into her own as a film musical go-to actress, in such movies as Pitch Perfect (and its upcoming sequel) and Into the Woods. This film also utilizes her substantial acting chops as well, during some very emotional moments, some which feature intense close-ups of her blissful or tearful face. Jordan. who comes to the big screen by way of Broadway, shows he's a pretty good dramatic actor in front of the camera in his own right. That the two actors are able to make these characters, who are constantly begging, pleading, and hurting one another, likeable is the firmest example of how well they bring their charisma into the roles.
As a story, one might read into this as the narcissism of artists, who naturally want to be appreciated for their work, looking to be the star in the spotlight. When one finally is, the other continuously has to stand in the shadow around that spotlight she seeks so much for herself, so frustrating to be within reach but can never attain. From either point of view, the significant other's actions (or inactions) seem selfish, which further drives the nail into the relationship's coffin. Jamie isn't willing to throw away his career to go back to her level, instead trying to encourage her to step up her game and join him by finding a way to break through. Meanwhile, Cathy just wants to be loved and adored, and to be in the spotlight of Jamie's life, instead of him always casting the beam on himself.
The Last Five Years is directed and adapted by Richard LaGravenese (PS I Love You, Freedom Writers), whose previous work contains no musicals but an emphasis on emotional dramas. His work thus far has been hit and miss, but I think he hits it well in this one by keeping the relationship intimate and not terribly stagy, feeling more like we're watching two people not quite able to stay connected through the period of adjustment required for the husband whose star is on the rise. LaGravenese also changes the scenery often enough to make the film feel like a cinematic experience that goes far beyond the confines of the stage.
While some who come into musicals may always be expecting big song-and-dance numbers that knock their socks off, it's nice to see one that stays small, contained, and true to the nature of the personal songs that the characters sing to each other, and to themselves. The music itself still feels big, and is sung with the dramatic range and passion you'd expect, but usually within intimate settings, either singing directly to each other, or all alone. The out-of-chronological-order telling gives an element of tragedy to the piece, as we know the love story is doomed, so the bright and optimistic beginnings carry much sadness underneath. If your heart doesn't break in the final number in which Cathy sings a goodbye-til-next-time after their first date, while Jamie sings, succinctly, goodbye, you might not have one.
©2015 Vince Leo