I was genuinely nervous that Richard LaGravenese’s film version of Jason Robert Brown’s beloved ‘The Last Five Years’ was going to dilute the original source material for a more general audience. I was admittedly scared that it was going to be dumbed down and cut to pieces in order to serve the perceived needs of American movie goers. Thankfully, this is not the case at all. It still stands as one of the most detailed dissections of a relationship that I’ve ever seen.
The film sticks true to its fully sung and structurally out of order premise, so, as you can guess, ‘The Last Five Years’ is not for everybody. It doesn’t pretend to be either. It is made for lovers of musical theatre. With its fun cameos, inside jokes, audition situations, and rehearsal scenes, the movie plays to a theatre loving audience. Despite all of this specificity, it is still remains a story about heartbreak, the choices we make, drive, how moments define you, and the evolution of love in a relationship. It is a universal story told through two specific characters, Cathy Hiatt (Anna Kendrick) and Jamie Wellerstein (Jeremy Jordan).
If you aren’t familiar with Robert Brown’s show, ‘The Last Five Years’ tells the story of Jamie, a newly successful writer, and Cathy, a struggling actress, and their relationship from beginning to end. (And end to beginning.) Fully sung, their time together is told from Cathy’s reverse point of view and Jamie’s chronological perspective with the story weaving the two memory tapestries together.
This is Jordan and Kendrick’s best work to date. Their raw talent is on full display here. They are the reason the movie works so well. They are the movie. The actors’ chemistry is on point, even when they aren’t on the same page character-wise. There’s always a sense of love present. Cathy and Jamie are fully realized people with flaws and positive attributes that we can all connect with and understand. Every choice they make is justified, whether it is the right one or not. They both sound great. Vocally the two voices are mixed well together and the depth they bring to every choice in every song is natural, real, subtle, and piercing. The humor they infuse throughout balances the soul crushing nature of the material well. Anna Kendrick’s “A Part of That” and “Summer in Ohio” are absolute highlights. As for Jeremy Jordan, his “If I Didn’t Believe In You” and “Nobody Needs to Know” are both beautifully authentic, layered, and haunting. Together, they both capture the empty façade of their relationship in “See I’m Smiling”. Enough can’t be said about their work in this piece, as they ARE this piece.
Most of the singing was done live onset and that organic aspect of the scenes show, but ultimately, I can’t say much for the sound design of this movie musical. The screening was at the Minetta Lane theatre, the space where the original NYC Off-Broadway production opened in 2002. (In his introduction, Jason Robert Brown mentioned that he was having an intensely surreal evening.) For the premiere, the space was converted into a movie theatre, so the sound quality we heard wasn’t top notch, but got the job done.
Richard LaGravenese’s adapted screenplay translates pretty well (with some curses left out), especially now that the characters interact throughout. (In the musical, Jamie and Cathy’s only direct interaction onstage is midway through the show when their timelines cross.) There is very little dialogue from the “non-singing party” in each scene–it’s mostly reaction shots and sporadic lines. This allows the focus to fall on the singer and their point of view. Jamie and Cathy are listening to what the other has to say, but not truly listening to each other at all. Their communication is all one sided, a clear sign of things to come. Amazingly, to the director and casts’ credit, the middle sequence, “The Next Ten Minutes,” still feels incredibly special. (This is that direct interaction song I mentioned above.) LaGravenese’s ‘Hitchcockian’ camera spin in the Central Park gazebo works to isolate these characters and highlight their importance to each other in that intimate timeline moment.
Elsewhere, his visual direction leaves something to be desired. Sure, the happy moments are bright and the downhill moments are dark, but some of the intimacy he attempts to create with sharp close-ups feel claustrophobic. His shaky-cam techniques work as distractions instead of highlighting the raw tension and pure love in sequences. In contrast, some numbers seem extremely blocked for the camera, that they verge on inorganic. (They never get to that point though.) The cinematography was oddly inconsistent, even with a score that is perfectly all over the place, style-wise. It felt sloppy in places. Overall transitions from song to song work with the use of white outs and pans. The mid-point, when the story flips, seemed to beg for a stronger visual choice, but the timeline redirection still reads. (On another note: I’m not so sure about the random ‘almost dance’ in “Moving Too Fast.” You’ll know it when you see it.)
This all being said, his work with the actors and clear passion for the piece is plastered everywhere. That’s a huge part of why the movie works. LaGravenese clearly loves musical theatre, this show, these characters, and the audience for whom this move was made. His eye for how this relationship worked and then didn’t, and how to highlight that in an in-depth musical study is on point. As an audience, we are allowed to take a peak into these character’s minds, hearts, and outer masks to make our own decisions about what went wrong with out an overwhelming bias one way or the other. The core of Jason Robert Brown’s truth-filled deconstruction of Jamie and Cathy is well served on screen by all parties involved.
This type of musical is an acquired taste, especially on film. I have a DNA-based taste for it. Kendrick and Jordan are stars in their respective mediums and the two powerhouses come together perfectly in the exact right movie musical. I understand that adapted musicals like this are incredibly subjective. As you’ve read, this movie really worked for me. I genuinely hope it works for you too.
Keep on Watchin’!
‘The Last Five Years’ opens in limited distribution and VOD this Friday, February 13th.