'The Last 5 Years': Toronto Review

Last 5 Five Years Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

Last 5 Five Years Still - H 2014

A skeletal anatomy of a marriage, in song

Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan fall in and out of love in Richard LaGravenese's screen version of the stage musical

Composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown’s The Last 5 Years is an intimate chamber piece that recaps the romance, marriage and separation of a struggling actress and a successful novelist. The 2002 musical’s structural trick is that it charts her experience in reverse, starting at the shattered conclusion, and his in standard forward chronology, beginning with love’s transporting bloom. Onstage, they share just one full duet when their accounts intersect mid-show. There must have been some spark of inspiration that made director Richard LaGravenese believe this hermetic construct might benefit from the larger breathing space of screen treatment. But it doesn’t.

The Weinstein Co. picked up North American rights on the eve of the film’s Toronto premiere, and is planning a Valentine’s Day 2015 release through its RADiUS label. Perhaps, along with star Anna Kendrick’s rising popularity, the original material’s extensive fan base will help the movie find an audience. In the 12 years since the show’s off-Broadway debut, both professional and amateur productions have proliferated.

Even in this fleshed-out form, The Last 5 Years is still very much a two-hander, and Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan make a charming pair. Their musical backgrounds are evident in the confidence and depth of feeling they bring to the songs, but also the ease with which they shift back and forth between rom-com breeziness and full-blown passion, be it the soaring highs or the heartsick lows. LaGravenese has added only minimal dialogue, so while this is not a sung-through musical to the extent of, say, Les Miserables, song is its dominant means of expression.

The problem is that the romance as depicted is just not interesting enough to sustain realistic treatment. It's sweet but a tad dull. The two characters lack dimension, and their stereotypical situations seem entirely generic. This has always been the case in a piece admired more for the lush melodies and naked emotions of Brown’s theater-pop score than for its storytelling. The evolution of the relationship is the show’s entire universe, and putting that relationship against a real-world backdrop exposes the narrative as emaciated and mundane.

Kendrick plays Cathy, the shiksa goddess who wins the heart of Jordan’s nice Jewish boy Jamie, an aspiring writer when they meet. The film opens with her alone in their Brooklyn brownstone clutching his breakup letter, refusing to believe they didn’t have something worth saving.

As LaGravenese zigzags back over their five years together, we watch Cathy’s dreams of becoming an actress fizzle in one deflating audition after another, or one more year of slinking back to do regional summer theater. Jamie, by contrast, drops out of Columbia and becomes a literary sensation when Random House publishes his debut novel to instant acclaim. As happy as Cathy is for him, trailing in Jamie’s wake at parties and book events only magnifies her own professional disappointment.

In one of Brown’s more perceptive songs, “If I Didn’t Believe in You,” Jamie refuses to feel bad about getting his break while insisting that doesn’t mean he’s stopped wanting the same for Cathy. But the imbalance eats away at their marriage, with her frustration and the increasing distractions and temptations of his fame slowly pulling them apart.

The curious hole in Brown’s musical and LaGravenese’s film of it is that we witness very little of the breakup. There are no fireworks, no dishes or even invective being hurled, no shocking discoveries or guilt-ridden admissions, at least not to one another. The relationship’s erosion is examined in their individual heads, which makes for some pretty songs but some pretty inert drama.

It also doesn’t help that the movie looks messy, with flat interior lighting and so many awkward confessional closeups that it starts to seem like a selfie video. And given that there are essentially only two characters, when other people are involved in a scene they too often stand around during songs without a clue how to react.

Jordan, best known as the original lead in Disney’s Newsies on Broadway and for his role on NBC’s unwatchable theater-biz soap, Smash, makes Jamie a personable guy, surprised enough by his success to be grateful for it. But the character is saddled with a deadly comic number at an inopportune moment, and Jamie never fully recovers. Unfunny and endless, “The Schmuel Song” is a whimsical ditty about a Jewish tailor, intended to pull Cathy out of her funk one Christmas. He might as well be saying, “Hey, you’re down about your failure, but check out more evidence of my effortless creativity!” Gee, thanks.

Kendrick has the more sensitively drawn role and also the movie’s most infectious moments of humor, notably in “A Summer in Ohio,” a goofy bit of self-deprecation about the indignities of doing regional theater, replete with cheesy dance moves. While hers is the life crippled by lack of momentum, Cathy’s arc paradoxically feels fuller and more lived-in than Jamie’s, largely because Kendrick gives it heart.

For the record, fans of the show in its New York incarnations will spot Sherie Rene Scott, the original off-Broadway Cathy, at one of the character’s failed auditions, while Betsy Wolfe, who played the role in a 2013 revival pops up as a stripper, and that’s composer Brown as one of the audition rehearsal pianists.

Production companies: Lucky Monkey Pictures, Sh-K-Boom Records, The Exchange
Cast: Anna Kendrick, Jeremy Jordan
Director-screenwriter: Richard LaGravenese, adapted from the musical by Jason Robert Brown
Producers: Lauren Versel, Kurt Deutsch, Janet Brenner, Richard LaGravenese
Executive producers: Laura Ivey, Alan Simpson, Brian O’Shea, Don Simpson, Robert Immerman, Paul Silver, Sherie Renee Scott, Ruth Mutch, Craig Balsam, Jen Namoff, Geoff Soffer
Director of photography: Steven Meizler
Production designer: Michael Fitzgerald
Costume designer: Ciera Wells
Music: Jason Robert Brown
Editor: Sabine Hoffmann
Choreographer: Michele Lynch
Sales: CAA, The Exchange

No MPAA rating, 94 minutes