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TIFF Review: The Musical ‘The Last Five Years’ Starring Anna Kendrick

TIFF Review: The Musical 'The Last Five Years' Starring Anna Kendrick

Two years ago, Anna Kendrick exploded with “Pitch Perfect.” The surprise smash hit gave the actress a platform to sing and show off her comedic chops in a leading role, and audiences were hooked—the movie earned over $110 million worldwide (not bad for a comedy about acapella groups), and the soundtrack sold over 1 million copies. While Universal is getting the sequel ready to drop next year, Hollywood didn’t wait long to give Kendrick another vehicle to display her unique, combined array of talents. “The Last Five Years” is the full blown musical that Kendrick seemed destined to make, but unfortunately it’s too much of a good thing.
Adapted from Jason Robert Brown‘s off-Broadway production by Richard LaGravenese, the story is fairly straight-forward. Starting at the end, the movie centers entirely on Cathy (Kendrick) and Jamie (Jeremy Jordan), hopscotching through time and tracking their romance, careers and the eventual downfall of their marriage. The pair is inseparable, but soon varying degrees of success in their professional careers create a fissure that leads to an irrevocable break. Jamie goes from struggling writer to phenomenon when his book lands in the hands of Random House, and upon publication, maintains a grip on the New York Times’ best seller list for over a year. “He’s like a young Jonathan Frazen,” his agent quips. However, Cathy’s acting dream stalls out in a series of unsuccessful auditions in off-Boadway roles, and eventually she winds up with a regular gig doing summer stock in Ohio.
While LaGravenese puts his “written by and directed” credit right up front, the translation of the musical isn’t all that radical. “The Last Five Years” tweaks the structure the original a bit, updates some of the lyrics, but mostly keeps the core components the same—this is an all-song film that features almost no extra dialogue, and few pauses between songs, so your mileage will vary accordingly. Though LaGravenese’s faithfulness to the songbook is perhaps admirable, the results don’t quite work cinematically.
We’d reckon that on stage, it’s easier to maintain a singular energy across the entire production, and the songs, while guiding an audience through the ups and downs of the central couple. On film, it’s a more difficult trick to pull off. Audiences are used too movies building toward an emotional crescendo, and while the director, working clearly from a limited budget, provides very good renditions and stagings of the songs (“A Summer In Ohio,” “Shiksa Goddess” and “A Miracle Would Happen” are highlights), rarely are they inventive. More problematic, the jumbled timeline means that key character peaks happen at odd moments in the midst of the film. It creates an uneven rhythm the to film, that even at a slim ninety-four minutes, can make it feel long. But the main attractions of the movie doesn’t belong to the songs or the story—it’s the stars.

Kendrick and Jordan are tasked with carrying and singing the entire the film, and they pull it off. Both are charismatic, engaging and make it look effortless, with Kendrick certainly proving once again she knows her way around the song. But it’s arguably Jordan—a Broadway actor who also did a stint on “Smash,” and featured in “Joyful Noise“—who slightly steals the show. Granted, he’s a new, fresh face, and it’s arguable that Jamie gets a couple of the more playful songs, but the actor’s enthusiasm is infectious, and it carries over to the character. Jordan knows how to work both the camera and the songs, and it’s quite the thing to watch. Whether or not “The Last Five Years,” due to its structure of trading off most songs from each character, offers a different perspective on the relationship, Jordan’s turn makes him somewhat more sympathetic.

But despite their best efforts, Kendrick and Jordan can’t keep “The Last Five Years” from being a film that’s ultimately for musical enthusiasts only. Certainly, without any additional character padding, the depth to the dissolution of Cathy and Jamie’s relationship doesn’t go as far as you want from a movie, and with the songs alone telling the story, as a film, it lacks a necessary dimensionality one seeks for a lasting impression. But for fans of the stage show, that will likely matter little, as “The Last Five Years” delivers exactly what they want (and nothing more). [C]  

Catch up with all our coverage from the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival here.

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