The Last Five Years is a safe, shallow, and underdeveloped adaptation of a small-minded and problematic musical.
Fans of Composer Jason Robert Brown’s 2001 musical The Last Five Years will be happy to know that the show makes its transition to the big screen with all of its songs intact. For better or for worse, the show that you remember is here, but this musical has always been a bit dubious in its popularity. Bolstered by a generation of pop musical-obsessed teenagers that fawned over Brown’s seemingly “profound” take on modern relationships, this juvenile and often chauvinistic love story has always gotten more credit than it deserves. Twee lyrics like “Have I mentioned today how lucky I am to be in love with you?” may melt the heartstrings and feel genuinely insightful to a 15-year-old, but those original fans have grown up and should frankly know better by now. And they very well may after viewing director Richard LaGravenese’s cheap-looking, bad music video-quality adaptation that does little to open up the musical’s two-handed black box setting to a legitimate film presentation, or add any meaningful context to this doomed relationship about two whiny, selfish “artists”.
For those who didn’t grow up belting out The Last Five Years’ soundtrack while driving down the freeway in your parents’ old car, the plot follows Cathy, a struggling actress, and her relationship to Jamie, a narcissistic author. The gimmick of the piece is that Cathy’s side of the relationship is told backwards with her story beginning at the end and ending at the beginning, while Jamie’s side is told chronologically. It provides an interesting perspective on stage, but unfortunately LaGravenese hasn’t found a successful solution to presenting the time switch visually. Unless you know the premise going in, the constant shifting in time will make little sense until the last few minutes, when it more obviously comes full circle. This messy focus gives the film a schizophrenic quality that makes the characters look far more neurotic than they should.
The most damnable thing about this film adaptation is that there is almost zero context given for why Cathy and Jamie should be together. All we ever witness is two individuals having cuddle sex (the most graphic this film gets is some light hair pulling) or brattily fighting. Sure, a lot of words are sung about how Cathy is a “shiksa goddess” and how Jamie’s smile makes “nothing else make sense,” but there isn’t anything of substance here. The film’s screenplay (also credited to LaGravenese) attempts to fill in the blanks with some weak sauce dialogue between the songs, but these lines mostly work as transitions rather than furthering character development. We also know that the relationship is doomed from the film’s opening scene thanks to Cathy’s tear-soaked song “Still Hurting,” so it’s particularly painful to watch two selfish individuals destroy themselves for an hour and a half.
The film’s two stars certainly have their charms, but one comes off remarkably better than the other. It should come as a surprise to absolutely no one by now that Anna Kendrick is a legitimate musical star (with a crystal clear, piercing set of pipes), and she gives as much depth as she can to Cathy within the lopsided material. There is lots of cringe-inducing woman-bashing, with condescending lyrics pointing to how Cathy needs to be “rescued” from herself. That’s cute, considering how Jamie comes off as a drunken womanizer who can’t keep his dick in his pants, but he gets to sing about how painful that is for him in “Nobody Needs to Know,” so clearly the material wants you to give him a pass. Jeremy Jordan has a great look and a stunning tenor belt, but he pushes way too hard in the more dramatic moments and comes off as a ridiculous man-child without an ounce of charm. It doesn’t help that many of his scenes include poorly executed “in the mind” musical moments where pedestrians start synchronized walking, or Jewish ex-girlfriends live in a physical dark closet. Kendrick is thankfully spared most of that nonsense, with only one montage moment that flows seamlessly as she describes her musical theater life in a summer stock company in the song “A Summer in Ohio”. It’s a cute confection that manages to poke a lot of fun at theater life for those in the know.
When The Last Five Years works the best is when Jordan and Kendrick are allowed to share a scene together without any stylized musical flourishes. When the two are simply singing to one another in the moment, without distractions, it gives a glimpse into the grittier, more honest film it could have been. But even in these rare calm scenes most people will want to shoot the camera operator, as the floating cinematography by Steven Meizler is an extreme close-up heavy, nauseating distraction. It also feels cheap, as much as the feigned “glossed” look tries to compensate for an all-too-evident lack of budget.
The Last Five Years is a snapshot of a really bad relationship that should have ended well before it ever began. Many of us have probably experienced something this toxic before, but few would readily subject themselves to five years of psychologically demeaning spousal warfare. Kendrick and Jordan do what they can with this ill-advised film musical adaptation, but they can’t save it from poor directorial choices and the inherently problematic source material. Yes, the songs may be intact, but that matters little when the foundation is cracked beyond repair.