Normally movie musicals are set in a heightened reality, not just due to the fact that everyone is singing, but also because the universe itself is shifted to the side. Even something like West Side Story is obviously in a fantasy version of New York, several steps away from reality. However The Last Five Years takes a look at a very real story (indeed it’s based on a tumultuous marriage the musical’s writer, Jason Robert Brown, had when he was in his 20s), and sets it in a realistic New York.
Everyone may be singing and it may play with time in unusual ways, but the world and the characters are extremely grounded, with plenty that everyone will be able to recognise from their own relationships.
The film follows Cathy (Anna Kendrick) and Jamie (Jeremy Jordan) who meet and fall deeply in love while they’re both in their early 20s. They decide to marry and think they’ll be together forever, but things begin to go wrong, particularly as Jamie’s writing career sees huge success while Cathy’s acting career stalls, with an endless series of auditions that don’t go anywhere. As the pressures mount, they eventually split up.
That last sentence would normally be a major spoiler, but The Last Five Years uses the interesting conceit of telling the story from both Cathy and Jamie’s perspective, with James side going from the beginning to the end of the relationship, while Cathy starts at the moment she finds Jamie’s Dear John break-up letter and then goes backwards. The film cuts back and forth, with each of them getting a song, but only singing together at the point of their marriage.
It’s an interesting idea but initially it’s a difficult one for the movie to pull off. In the stage version the two characters only interact at the marriage, making it easy to see you’re getting different perspectives and that one is going backward and the other forwards. However on film it takes longer to get used to, as both characters are constantly on the screen, and the film initially lacks decent signposts to help the audience understand how it’s jumping around.
Once you’ve got into it, it works surprisingly well, helped by the fact that Richard LaGravenese’s direction becomes more assured as it goes along. There’s also the fact that the music is really good, with a smart score that’s tuneful, not too tortuously rocky and contains some great songs. It’s also impressively honest, carefully not painting either of the characters as the bad guy, with both having issues and problems that drive them apart, but also immense passion and love that draws them together. Indeed it’s the most effective aspect of the time jumps, that it constantly leaps from the excitement of new love to the grinding pain of a relationship breaking down in a way that’s emotionally involving.
A musical is actually a smart way to deal with it, as one of the limitations of films is that without an overabundance of narration and clunky exposition, it’s difficult to show exactly what is going on in the characters’ minds. However in a musical that’s not an issue, as both Jeremy and Cathy can sing their thoughts and feelings. That’s especially true here as nearly all the songs are solos, showing that moment in the relationship through one of their eyes.
It’s not a complete success, partly due to Richard LaGravenese’s initial hesitation in how to direct the film, and also that in trying to ensure it remains in a real world, it’s sometimes rather flat visually. That’s particularly problematic at the beginning, as it makes the time jumps slightly more difficult to follow.
However both Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan are great, bringing a lot of energy to fairly difficult roles, which demand them to be emotionally quite raw and sing pretty much everything. They both ensure that they hold the audience’s empathy, despite the fact that it would have been easy for either of them to have gone too far and made their characters seem either too needy or selfish (as most people can be at times). There’s a surprising honesty to what they’re doing, which is the great strength of the musical both on stage and on screen.
Overall Verdict: Due to the time jumps which aren’t set up as well as they should have been, The Last Five Years has been a tougher sell than it ought to have been. However it rewards patience, with great performances and some excellent music.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac