The resounding cheers throughout and at the very end of the second public screening of The Last Five Years at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival indicated approval from a largely musical-loving crowd. You would hope so. The off-Broadway production composed by the Tony award-winning Jason Robert Brown is apparently a pretty well-loved piece – at least, that’s what my very unscientific survey of the numerous young and old theatre geeks in line to get into the screening suggested by their excited commentary.
But how does it fare for the lite-fans or standard moviegoer?
It’s 90 minutes of non-stop singing. The songs are quirky, fun, beautifully sung and there’s a Russell Crowe ad lib that’s just the cherry on top of all of zippy comedic snaps. If you somehow don’t have the prerequisite genuine joy for musicals, you’ll be treated to a phenomenal performance from Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air, Into the Woods), who lays down everything that makes her the talent that she is in this movie.
Kendrick plays Cathy, an aspiring actress who is one of two main characters in a story about a deeply passionate love that fails to withstand the challenges of compromise, balancing success and mutual support in their marriage. Her husband Jamie (Jeremy Jordan, Smash) is a novelist whose career launches and thrives over the course of their five year relationship. Cathy and Jamie’s tale alternates between their individual perspectives; her version begins from the moment their relationship ends, while Jamie shares it in sequential order from the time they met. The timelines are a bit confusing for the first few songs, but they eventually overlap in the proposal scene. Suddenly, the whole picture of this devastatingly unfortunate situation is much more clear and eventually comes full circle.
The original production uses the same storytelling device but in the form of alternating soliloquies. Director Richard LaGravenese (P.S. I Love You, screenwriter on Unbroken) rightly placed Kendrick and Jordan in nearly every scene together so that the audience can see the two characters physically respond to the spiteful and loving words shared as their relationship takes its turns. It is pretty necessary for a film medium, but it also works because of Kendrick and Jordan’s chemistry, especially in the earlier, more emotionally fruitful days of their relationship. Their feverishness in those scenes, aided with LaGravenese’s intimate shaky camera shots, makes those young love moments really palpable, pure and exciting.
When the conflict driving their separation becomes more apparent, your empathy gets placed in Cathy’s perspective more than Jamie’s. There is a lot more to identify with in her story, and Kendrick drives that connection. Kendrick juggles the emotional, comedic and musical elements with an incredible brilliance and finesse. If for some reason viewers haven’t been convinced by her talent in her work so far, then this is the vessel that’ll do the trick. Jordan, amidst a lot of frantic choreography and a not-so-kind character arch, proves to be a great on-screen counterpart and similarly holds well in the darkest (and yes, douchiest) of moments. But, Kendrick easily outshines him.
The fact that The Last Five Years is not overbearingly dense in length and plot will probably please viewers more than other musicals released in recent years. It is honest, heartbreaking without excessive dramatics and for at least part of the film, it is a lot of fun. If these are the elements that made fans so invested in the original production, then they should take comfort that LaGravenese projected that appeal with the film adaptation. LaGravenese and Jordan appeared at the screening I attended for a Q&A (Kendrick was actually in the theatre next door for the premiere screening of Cake). Here are a few tidbits from that session:
- LaGravenese wanted to keep the production as organic and raw as possible, but also had to balance those goals with the visual aspects. This was a bit challenging as there was live singing during the production.
- Jeremy Jordan found difficulty in bringing body and breath to the songs as he was active while the other sang (which differs from the nature of the stage show)
- Any lyric changes (which were questioned by a fan during the Q&A) were made by Jason Robert Brown, the original composer, who also expanded the sonic aspect of the songs for the film
- Anna Kendrick thought of the Russell Crowe bit ad libbed in a song
- Jeremy’s actual wife was in the film in a not-so-positive scene
The Last Five Years will be distributed by The Weinstein Company and will release in North America on February 13th, 2015. If you live in Toronto, it will be screened at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.