[This is a re-post of my The Last Five Years review from the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. The movie is available in select theaters and VOD starting today.]
Finding a new way to tell a love story is tough. Relationships are what hold us together, and the wide range of emotions felt throughout them—passion, attraction, anger, jealousy—are what remind us that we are indeed human. Director Richard LaGravenese’s feature film adaption of the stage musical The Last Five Years attempts to tell this kind of universal story in a unique fashion, tracking the life of a relationship between a man and a woman from beginning to end simultaneously. We begin at the end from the woman’s point of view, and then trade off every other scene with the man’s point of view, which starts at the beginning of the relationship. On top of that, the whole thing is a full-on, honest-to-goodness musical. While the catchy songs and a fantastic performance from Anna Kendrick make the film enjoyable, some odd directorial choices and an unfortunate miscasting of the male half of the duo prevent the adaptation from ever fully coming together.
When I say The Last Five Years is a musical, I mean it is a musical. There’s very little dialogue in the film, and it opens with a tremendous, somber solo number from Kendrick, who plays Cathy Hyatt. As the film begins, Cathy is coming to terms with the fact that her five-year relationship with her husband Jamie (Jeremy Jordan), a successful author, is completely and entirely over. It’s an incredible number that really shows off Kendrick’s range, and LaGravenese shoots the whole thing pretty statically, letting Kendrick’s performance take center stage. We then cut to an upbeat, colorful number called “Shiksa Goddess” that’s sung from Jamie’s point of view, and it takes place five years earlier, during the first highly charged sexual encounter between Cathy and Jamie.
When the two first meet, Cathy is an aspiring performer and Jamie is an aspiring author. However, Jamie’s first book soon finds massive success (his agent refers to him as “a young Jonathan Franzen”), and as he becomes more and more popular within the New York book scene, Cathy still struggles to break through, spending her summers doing regional theater in Ohio.
The film continues to switch back and forth as Cathy’s storyline moves backwards and Jamie’s moves forwards, showing us the ups and downs of their relationship along the way. It’s a fantastic idea and it comes straight from the stage musical, but LaGravenese doesn’t entirely succeed in cluing the audience into what’s exactly going on. The timeline becomes confusing in the execution, and I found myself wondering which part of the relationship we were watching more than once. While LaGravenese attempts to set the two timelines apart with subtle aesthetic differences, it becomes increasingly muddled as the two approach their meeting point in the middle.
Even if the structure is a tad confusing, Kendrick’s performance is dynamite. She absolutely shines here, bringing depth to the character of Cathy with an outstanding mix of humor and heart. She can nail the funny scenes just as easily as the dramatic, emotional beats, and the subject matter gives Kendrick plenty of opportunity to show off her superb dramatic chops. Moreover, the Cathy-centric musical number “A Summer in Ohio” is a show stopping set piece in the middle of the film that is performed to delightful perfection.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Jordan’s portrayal of Jamie. The character is instantly off-putting, and while he eventually turns into a bit of a dirt bag, we’re initially supposed to buy into the fact that Cathy really falls for this guy. He feels slimy instead of charming, pretentious instead of intelligent, and we’re left wondering what in the world Cathy sees in him. The role was miscast, and as a result, the romance aspect of the film—which is kind of integral to, you know, a love story—ends up falling quite flat.
Also working against the central relationship is the fact that we skip over the meet cute entirely. Our introduction to their relationship comes at a point where Cathy and Jamie are already crazy for each other, and so the audience is given no foundation on which to build the emotional arc of the rest of the film. Again, it also doesn’t help that Jamie comes off as smarmy from the onset.
LaGravenese also makes some odd choices behind the camera, opting to shoot much of the film handheld. That’s fine for an intimate musical like Once, but the music behind The Last Five Years is sweeping at times, making some numbers incongruous in terms of audio versus visuals. The being said, the sound mix work on the film is excellent. It’s clear that the picture was shot on a very limited budget, but the quality with which the live vocal performances are captured is incredibly high, allowing Kendrick and Jordan to take improvisational beats in the middle of their numbers. Refreshingly, the musical tracks of the movie don’t feel like they were all recorded months before production in a recording booth in Los Angeles.
While a case of miscasting and some distracting directorial choices keep The Last Five Years from becoming emotionally affecting or wholly engrossing, the strength of the songs themselves and Kendrick’s remarkable lead performance still make the film an enjoyable experience. It’s certainly disappointing considering how successful this movie could have been, and one imagines with a different male lead and some tweaks to the visual representation this might have been a strongly emotional experience. Alas, we’ll just have to settle for a so-so movie with a great Anna Kendrick performance and some catchy tunes, which is not an altogether terrible compromise.