The Last Five Years doesn’t have a lot in common with your garden variety movie-musical. Sure, there’s the big one–music being told through song–but there are none of the dramatic stagings and/or dance numbers and/or the friendly neighborhood chorus that you’ll find in a Les Mis or a Chicago. Decidedly not toe-stepping from the comparatively less flashy world of off-Broadway, The Last Five Years follows the relationship of wannabe actress Cathy (Anna Kendrick) and aspiring novelist Jamie (Jeremy Jordan) through their meeting, their marriage, and eventually their separation. The schtick is that Cathy’s part of the story is told backwards-to front (the first scene is her reacting to their split), while Jamie’s story comes from the other direction, with the two of them meeting in the middle when he proposes.
Actually, “schtick” is maybe too derogatory a word here–as a concept, it’s interesting and effective, elevating what could have been a run-of-the-mill relationship drama (Jamie’s impulsive, while Cathy tends to overthink; Jamie’s career stalls, while Cathy’s takes off–it’s nothing you haven’t seen 100 times before) into something fresh. It’s captivating to see, in Jamie’s first scene (he gleefully sings about having found the perfect, wonderful “Shiksa goddess” to complete him) the narcissism that Cathy attributes to him in the previous song, set after their relationship has ended. You see Cathy’s persistent, niggling doubts about her place in her genius novelist husband’s life and Jamie’s growing frustration about his wife’s intransigence, while at the same time you’re also seeing what those seeds grow into. It’s obvious why the musical, by Jason Robert Brown, has something of a cult following. It’s a truly unique piece of theater.
I’m guessing Richard LaGravenese thought so, too–his love of the musical shines through every frame. It had to have been a passion project for him, as I can’t imagine Hollywood’s clamoring for too many mid-budget indie musicals. In my head, LaGravenese, Kendrick (who pops out of thin air every time a studio exec utters the words, “Hey, why don’t we make a music–“), and Jordan would camp out on potential investors’ front porches, clutching a printed-out score to their chests, grinning manically, and chanting ONE OF US ONE OF US until the producers agreed to give them money if they’d go away. And that’s really fucking cool. More clever indie musicals like this one and last year’s God Help the Girl need to be made, smaller more personal stories that don’t need all the splendor big studios can provide. Hollywood shouldn’t have exclusive domain over this entire genre.
However, The Last Five Years is too worshipful of its source material, in that it’s one step up from someone plunking down a camera at a musical and filming the actors on stage. It doesn’t really take advantage of the possibilities this different medium provides to expand on the story at all. The shooting appears to have been done with a single hand-held camera, swooping around the characters and often shooting in close-up, which I found boring. (I didn’t want close-ups of people’s faces while they’re singing in Tom Hooper’s Les Mis, and I don’t want to see them now.) An attempt at style was made with the use of color–Cathy’s scenes start out dim and dark and get lighter and brighter as she goes back in time to happier days, while Jamie’s scenes slowly get leeched of color as his relationship with Cathy goes to shit. It’s an interesting idea, but the rest of the movie is so visually uninteresting that its primary effect is to make a good chunk of The Last Five Years washed-out and grimy.
The quality of Jason Robert Brown’s songs, which are excellent, and Kendrick and Jordan’s pitch-perfect (see what I did there?) singing go a long way towards rescuing this otherwise mediocre film, but I can’t help but wish LaGravenese had pulled the musical down from its pedestal so he could do some fiddling.