Can Anna Kendrick save the movie musical with “The Last Five Years”? The answer is no — and yes. She’s clearly the show-topping star of this romantic, song-and-dance vehicle that plays with time in interesting ways; but Richard LaGravenese’s awkwardly mounted screen version of Jason Robert Brown’s Off-Broadway hit plays for musical geeks only, and assuredly they’ll be in hog heaven.
Kendrick and Broadway actor Jeremy Jordan (“Rock of Ages,” “West Side Story”) play Cathy and Jamie, two twentysomethings who meet cute, fall in love, get married young and, inevitably, divorce young. “The Last Five Years” charts the birth and death of that marriage, beginning with Cathy who, through mournful opening tune “Still Hurting,” reflects on their ugly separation cast in the anemic lighting of their New York apartment. We learn that she is a struggling theater actress who, at this point at the end of their “five years,” has finally achieved some liftoff in her career. Then, in much brighter hues, we meet Jamie at the beginning of their relationship. He’s a rising novelist, though his plucky earnestness would make you think otherwise.
LaGravenese’s screenplay clumsily threads together these two timelines, with Jamie looking back on their courtship in chronological order as Cathy’s reflections go backwards. This stunt of narrative trickery reads as inelegantly on paper as it plays onscreen. It’s not easy to assess where, exactly, we are in the story and through whose vantage point we’re meant to view things.
The film is most successful during a mid-stretch jaunt to Ohio, where Cathy has been cast in a middling community theater musical. Jamie is now the toast of the New York publishing circle whose editor compares him to a “young Jonathan Franzen” (it’s these sorts of broadly glib cultural references that stunt the film just a little bit each time). She wants him to spend her birthday weekend in Ohio in between rehearsals; but he wants to attend a book party back in the city. Obviously a huge fallout results, and the film finally has something perceptive to say about how we hide behind professionalism and duty as a means to sweep our interpersonal problems beneath the proverbial rug.
Cinematographer Steven Meizler does what he can with such claustrophobic material. You feel trapped in the closet. But that appears to the idea, as much of the play–and film–is set inside Cathy and Jamie’s bohemian-disheveled-chic apartment. Long takes, and slowly distancing dolly shots, along with alternating closeups, still shots and handheld strokes, key into the emotional status of the characters and, more than the songs, where their relationship is at a given time.
In spite of a little technical razzle-dazzle here and there, there isn’t enough specific texture to Cathy or Jamie, two blandly constructed human beings who aren’t even archetypal enough to spark our recognition or empathy. It is Kendrick, however, who makes the most convincing case for this movie musical. With her physical expressiveness and prairie-plain but just lovely enough singing voice, she shines through the humdrum just as she did in last year’s “Into the Woods,” and the wildly adored “Pitch Perfect” (which has a sequel in the cooker).
The movie musical may not be as alive and well as it was in its golden Hollywood heyday, but one lesson can be gleaned from “The Last Five Years”: If you’re going to make one, Anna Kendrick is your girl.
“The Last Five Years” opens in limited release and is available on VOD platforms today.