Amidst a crowded slate of international auteur offerings and studio pics warming up for awards season, the Toronto Film Festival always has room for a few crowd-pleaser indies. Up against big name actors going serious for a chance at Oscar gold, or the year’s best (read: most depressing) documentaries, a light-hearted bit of fluff can make for a popular life-preserver among festival-goers drowning in dour prestige. Last year’s Begin Again made for a sweet-sounding reprieve back when it premiered at TIFF as Can a Song Save Your Life?, and 2014’s cure for festival blues looks to be the similarly mellifluent The Last 5 Years.
Though its star power isn’t quite as bright as Begin Again’s, The Last 5 Years favorably recalls why a breezy romantic musical always has the potential to be a big breakout. It’s shot on the cheap, but when you’re shooting in New York, a little soft focus will make any outdoor location look positively dreamy. Then there’s the potential for CD sales, as any musical worth its salt will have enough memorable tunes to be worth charging 20 bucks for. Add to that the fact that romance and musical movies are easily programmable throughout the year, and a picture like The Last 5 Years can look like an easy soft bet to many distributors.
Two details should help make the film as big a hit in wide release as it will likely be at TIFF. One is the small, but existent in-grown audience for the film, which is based on a musical of the same name by Jason Robert Brown. Though it opened off-off-Broadway in 2002, The Last 5 Years went on to notable success internationally, and even had a revival showing in New York last year. The film is pretty much a note-for-note recreation of the stage production, which zigzags back and forth on the five-year relationship timeline of Jamie Wellerstein (Jeremy Jordan), an aspiring author and nice Jewish boy from Washington heights, and Cathy Hyatt (Anna Kendrick), a similarly aspiring shiksa singer from Jersey.
The jumpy narrative structure is Brown’s cleverest spin on a simple enough setup. Rearrange the songs in chronological order, and the first half would pancreas-threateningly sweet while Jamie and Cathy go gaga for one another. By instead opening at the story’s end, where their marriage is over in everything but the paperwork, examining events out of order lets The Last 5 Years avoid slogging through the relationship turmoil all at once, and gives the sunny years of this couple an edge of inevitable tragedy.
The other big reason why The Last 5 Years could strike a chord with the public is that Cathy is played by the eminently adorable Anna Kendrick. Even more so than Pitch Perfect, The Last 5 Years provides the ideal vehicle for Kendrick’s unique blend of easygoing self-deprecation, magnetic charm, and strong set of pipes. All due respect to Jordan, who’s a fine singer and capable actor, but Kendrick basically blows him out of the water.
Seeing as the musical is almost exclusively a two-hander, this creates something of an imbalance, as Kendrick gets most of the catchy major key songs, and Jordan does a lot more of the minor key crooning. It’s not the only problem The Last 5 Years faces in moving itself from the stage to the screen, as the songs are structured such that each of the leads swaps who’s on the mic, only ever coming together as a duet on one track. With theatrical spotlighting, this poses no issue, but onscreen, it can be awkward to have characters sharing a scene in which one partner is belting, and the other simply looks on.
A more interesting problem is how writer and director Richard LaGravenese tackles the usual challenges of doing theatre on film, but with a modest budget. The roots of The Last 5 Years can be stifling, as LaGravenese uses lots of camera movement to inject energy into songs requiring static character placement, but the effect is more often distracting than invigorating. On the other hand, he does deliver a few technically complex long takes over the course of certain numbers, and the intimacy of his camera allows jokes originally pitched to the cheap seats to play appropriately small on screen.
Oddly enough, many of The Last 5 Years’ best shots and songs happen to coincide with Cathy being on stage, like a beautiful shot of Kendrick under a stage light, and a hilarious, scatological number that includes a gut-busting stab at 2012’s Les Misérables adaptation. A few of the songs are duds, and it’s hard not to check out a little during Jamie’s verses, when it means getting away from the feisty, loveable Cathy. But for a musical all about watching a marriage collapse, The Last 5 Years sure will inspire a skip in your step.