In life, there are couples that we hope will always stay together, just as there are romances that are doomed to succeed. From the latter group, it is often due to the poor matching of both people in the relationship. If you despise one half of the union, you secretly hope for their love to dissolve. The same is true for couples in the movies: you want to be rooting for both sides to reach an apex of romantic ecstasy so that you can go home happy.
The main issue with The Last Five Years, a new musical from director Richard LaGravenese (Freedom Writers), is not just that the young male and female protagonists are a bad match, but the actors who occupy those roles are poorly suited for each other. Anna Kendrick is one of the best young actors working in Hollywood today, and also a vibrantly talented singer. She doesn’t just know how to carry a tune with aplomb, but how to bring both gravitas and a spritely spirit to the vocal performance, often within the same song. Jeremy Jordan, who plays Kendrick’s beau, is more native to the stage. Whereas she internalizes the pain and pleasure behind the lyrics, he externalizes everything, boasting and mugging so that the back row can see the expression on his face.
Clearly, their union is not meant to be – so it helps that they star in a film where the characters do not end up together. That is not a spoiler: Jason Robert Brown’s beloved hit musical begins with the end of their half-decade relationship. (The original play was inspired by the playwright’s failed marriage.) The musical’s structural concept is that Cathy Hiatt (Kendrick) relives the highlights of her romance with Jamie Wellerstein (Jordan) backward, moving from its bitter end to the hopeful beginning. At the same time, he tells the story of their relationship in chronological order.
One would think that the crisscrossing narratives would be easier to communicate on film than on the stage; however, LaGravenese often loses sight of Cathy’s backward trajectory. Without balancing the points-of-view, the director infringes on that character’s story. Secondly, he calls into question the point of telling the story on two narrative paths. Since LaGravenese abandons this intriguing narrative touch so often, when we finally jump into Cathy’s perspective, the shift is jarring.
It doesn’t help that Jamie is a rather boring character. His first song recounts his joy at getting the newfound freedom to sleep with a non-Jewish woman, depicting his affection for Cathy in a somewhat questionable way. His second song deals with his newfound fame, as he catapults to the top of the literary ladder at Random House. We get little indication of his creative struggle or even his talent before hearing him answer a phone call that shoots him to stardom.
Meanwhile, as Cathy basks in the glory of Jamie’s celebrity, she cannot help but feel a bit intimidated by her boyfriend’s sleeper success. Cathy is an actor who wakes up early in the morning to line up for Broadway auditions and cannot manage to catch a break, or even a successful callback. Instead of getting the lead (or even the chorus) in a hit musical, she resigns to being her husband’s arm candy – or worse.
Unfortunately, The Last Five Years rarely explores these characters beyond how well they do in their professional lives. Jamie’s ascent into the new “it” author offsets Cathy’s near-stagnant resume, and this tension is the only thing that subsists for close to five years. The last half of the film is derivative of the conflicts introduced earlier on, thus making the reason the union ultimately dissolves not much of a surprise. For a story about a multi-year relationship, it is a rather slight affair. “I tend to follow in his stride, instead of side by side,” Cathy sings, in a life that effectively sums up the entire film.
Jamie’s swollen ego makes for an insufferable character, and with the exception of a sweet holiday-set ditty, “The Schmuel Song,” Jordan fails to inject Jamie with enough humanity to make us root for him. His actions always seem mimed and a bit bigger than is natural for the screen. Kendrick, in comparison, knows how to belt it out but keeps her volatile emotions in check. She anchors the best songs in the film while showing different facets of her dramatic range. In the sunny “A Summer in Ohio,” she embraces the wacky world of stock theatre, recounting the bizarre cast of characters she acts alongside. That song is told in a briskly cut montage, whereas “See, I’m Smiling” is told with just a few piercing takes, as she leans into Jamie about her dissatisfaction with their marriage.
Similar to Les Misérables two winters ago, practically every line in the film is sung. Meanwhile, LaGravenese takes cues from the Tom Hooper school of direction, often zooming in for extreme close-ups. (Since the actors do not always sing live, there are also several moments where the vocal range on the soundtrack doesn’t match the actors’ barely-open mouths.) Unlike Hooper’s film, the close-ups here are applied well, such as in an intimate circular dance during “The Next Ten Minutes” – the song at the film’s midpoint where both Cathy and Jamie’s stories intersect. Often, though, when the director relies on long takes, the length of the shots subsist for such a period that it makes you remember the story’s stage roots.
As stage musicals are wont to do, we can tell at which point we’re at in the relationship due to unmistakable lighting cues. The happy moments are flushed with a yellow sheen, while the color fades when the romance decays. There is also far too little of the vitality or ingenuity that (500) Days of Summer, another romance with a time-hopping narrative, used to both charm and emotionally devastate audiences. In The Last Five Years, Cathy’s stardom falters while Jamie’s fame exceeds his expectations. As the performances go, the opposite is true: Jordan struggles to make an impression, while Kendrick anchors the story effortlessly.
The Last Five Years is a redundant and emotionally uninvolving romance, even as it cements Anna Kendrick as one of her generation’s biggest talents.