‘The Last 5 Years’ Review: At Least Anna Kendrick Is Worth Singing About
Hey, did you know that Anna Kendrick can sing and act? Did you know she’s pretty good at both on their own, but extremely good at doing them together? Have you missed the slow revival of the movie musical? You can correct that now, thanks to Richard LaGravenese’s The Last 5 Years, a long-in-the-making big screen version of Jason Robert Brown’s beloved off-Broadway musical of the same name, a cinematic take on a work originally meant strictly for the stage, and one that succeeds primarily because Kendrick clearly wants it to so damn badly.
The film is a two-hander to a tee – the opening credits only list Kendrick and her co-star Jeremy Jordan, and good luck even remembering the names of the random supporting characters who so briefly flit across the screens with little regularity – and is entirely dedicated to a romance we know is going to fail, if only because the first sequence tells us plainly that this ship has sailed. But LaGravenese has good material to work with (or, at least, good enough), including vast reserves of catchy songwriting and a crafty narrative conceit that drives things along, and The Last 5 Years is a modest success and a fine approximation of what works so well on the stage. And, again, it stars Anna Kendrick, who knows how to do this stuff with one hand tied behind her back.
Faithfully adapted from Brown’s original work, The Last 5 Years tells a relatively straightforward story about a young creative couple whose relationship eventually crumbles under the weight of resentment (especially as it relates to the success of one person over the other), infidelity and myriad other issues. It should come as little surprise that the eponymous last five years are also the first five years, and the only five years when it comes to Cathy (Kendrick) and Jamie’s (Jordan) romance. The trick of The Last 5 Years is its narrative conceit, which sees both Cathy and Jamie telling their own sides of their story from different time periods – Cathy’s goes backwards, as the film opens with her alone in their apartment after Jamie has left her for good, while Jamie’s zips forward from their first encounter. It’s a neat thing, really, and knowing the end (quite literally) doesn’t rob the film of any tension or emotion. As Cathy goes back in time, we get to see the dissolution of their relationship in reverse, while Jamie builds up by moving forward. The answer to what happened to the Wellersteins exists somewhere in the middle.
The film’s narrative is its main attraction, but LaGravenese handles it nimbly. When things get muddled in the middle, it appears to be a purposeful decision, and the inherent confusion works to further the tone and feel of the film. And yet the film is hampered by its insistence on sticking to what Brown wrote specifically for the stage. The music works. The singing works. The beats work, but something is lost in the translation, and it keeps The Last 5 Years from existing as its own successful cinematic outing.
The film’s denial of showing how the pair meet – as is keeping with Brown’s musical – proves to be an unwise decision, as it robs the audience from any emotional connection to Cathy and Jamie’s origin story. We have no idea how these people know each other, let alone why they love each other. Still, the biggest and boldest sequences work startlingly well, particularly when Cathy and Jamie overlap at the film’s middle (the lone actual intersection of their storylines) and in what could best be described as a fantasy sequence and coda at the film’s conclusion.
Fortunately, there are other elements that recommend the feature, particularly Kendrick’s performance (but you knew that already). Kendrick is excellent as the wounded and weak Cathy, and although the material strives to give equanimity to the eventual Wellersteins’ role in the dissolution of their marriage, Kendrick’s charm and strong performance make her the far more sympathetic party. Jordan’s Jamie is rarely appealing, and his cocky attitude overwhelms the actor’s entire performance, especially in the early portions of their relationship, when it seems so baseless and inflated. The crux of The Last 5 Years is, of course, that the pair are plagued by issues stemming from Jamie’s very early success and Kathy’s inability to break through in her chosen career, but Jordan is so consistently cocky that it’s difficult to find much charm in him at any point.
The delights of The Last 5 Years are all on Kendrick’s side, and her skilled performance – both in terms of her acting ability and her well-honed pipes – is the one element of the film worth reveling in. And, hey, the songs aren’t too bad, either.
The Upside: Anna Kendrick’s performance, the music is wonderful and catchy, its unique narrative conceit works very effectively.
The Downside: Jordan’s Jamie is not appealing, the film’s faithful spin on the musical that spawned it leaves large gaps in narrative and emotion, portions of the feature have all the crisp appearance of bad iPhone video.
On the Side: Brown’s original work was inspired by his own failed marriage to actress Theresa O’Neill, who threatened to sue him for hewing too closely to their own story, as had been stipulated as part of their divorce settlement (Brown later changed the song “I Could Be In Love With Someone Like to You” to”Shiksa Goddess” to appease her).