The Last Five Years, the film adaptation of the beloved stage musical, unfortunately turns out to be a bit of a dud. Unlike the stage show, the film reveals the roots of Jason Robert Brown's work are a nifty structure in search of a story.
The film tracks the course of a relationship that grows to marriage, then ends in divorce, with the man, Jamie (Jeremy Jordan), starting at the beginning and moving to the end, and the woman, Cathy (Anna Kendrick), starting at the end and moving back to the beginning. They meet in the middle when he proposes to her and they have their wedding. On stage, this means the two actors usually never interact, except for that central number. The film struggles with this set up.
And this is too bad, because Kendrick's performance is almost worth seeing the whole thing for.
Let's look at what does and doesn't work in this film.
Brown's score remains lovely and soulful, filled with great, lonely breakup songs and even some fun, up-tempo numbers, especially for Jordan in the early days of the characters' relationship. "Still Hurting," the heart-rending song Cathy opens the show with, is transferred here with such skill that it suggests a much stronger adaptation than what we ultimately get. Every time the melody recurs throughout the film, it's a poignant reminder of where this is heading.
Brown based the musical on the dissolution of his own marriage, and he avoids the thing that drags down so many other works of this sort: he takes Cathy's emotions as seriously as Jamie's, even though he clearly identifies with Jamie more. Cathy gets the best song, the most emotionally nuanced character work, and most of the funny moments, too.
In the hands of Kendrick, she comes alive even more than usual, which is both the film's greatest strength and a huge contributor to its most glaring weakness (about which more in a bit). Cathy is someone who finds her greatest happiness, then discovers it's not enough when her husband's career takes off and hers remains stagnant. Kendrick charts that arc perfectly.
In earlier eras, Kendrick would have naturally fallen into a string of musical projects, and she's been eking out a similar career with the few musicals Hollywood deigns to make each year (at least so long as her Pitch Perfect franchise keeps ticking). But Kendrick is so good with the basics of dramatic singing — like phrasing and placing enunciation in the right places — that it will make you all the sadder she doesn't find films better than this one or Into the Woods to show off her chops in.
Finally, this doesn't have much to do with the film itself, but you can see it now on video on-demand. So if you don't want to leave your house this Valentine's Day, there you go.
Sadly, Jordan's not up to the level of what Kendrick brings. He's basically fine, but throughout the film, both Jordan and director Richard LaGravenese don't seem to tap into the essential, haughty self-involvement that makes Jamie so hard to take. That means Kendrick essentially overpowers the film — you want to feel for Cathy and strangle Jamie, a dangerous place for a two-character film to be in.
This also delves into the foremost weakness of Brown's show — it never really understands Jamie's weaker points as well as it does Cathy's. Yes, Jamie does terrible things to his marriage, but Last Five Years spends lots and lots of time on Cathy's emotional and psychological shortcomings that drive her and Jamie apart, but precious little on her husband. He's basically a good person who does bad things, not as deeply flawed.
All of this is even more complicated by the way that being on film tends to over-literalize everything. There are ways around this, ways to make films feel dreamier and less literal, but LaGravenese mostly eschews them in order to put Jordan and Kendrick together in every scene. That might be a necessity of making a movie with, essentially, only two characters, but he also overcompensates in actually showing characters who are only mentioned in most stage productions, such as Jamie's colleagues and friends.
LaGravenese doesn't seem to have a particular vision for how to shoot or tell this particular story, so he just aims for the most straightforward method possible most of the time, and that ultimately cripples the film in ways it can't recover from.
Finally, this is minor, but it's far, far too easy to get lost in the film's timeline, particularly after the central proposal.
Should you see it?
If you're a big fan of musicals, it's worth it for Kendrick's performance and some of the better numbers. But otherwise, this is strictly optional.
The Last Five Years is playing in limited release and everywhere on video on-demand.