'The Last Five Years'
‘The Last Five Years’ serves up a slightly unconventional musical for slightly unconventional audiences. It’s not groundbreaking, but it is heartbreaking, sweet and moving in all the right ways. The songs and insights into adult human relationships make some wonderful music together. However, the film is also a little bit like every musical that you’ve ever seen before, even when it’s not.
Thankfully, the filmmakers were at least wise enough to cast Anna Kendrick in the lead role. Even when their movie doesn’t soar, at least she does. If you haven’t noticed yet, Kendrick is an absolute delight and, if nothing else, this movie showcases exactly how and why.
The film springs from the rather famous Jason Robert Brown off-Broadway musical of the same name. That beloved minimalist production split the stage in half, one for each broken heart of a failed romance. The girl sings about the end of their relationship with the tears still fresh. The guy picks up at the start while their emotions were still raw. Eventually, they meet in the middle. Obviously that wouldn’t quite work as a film, so director Richard LaGravanese opts for a slightly less theatrical approach. The structure remains, only now the songs march through fully realized scenes of this life story, and the couple share the stage, bouncing around each other during their trade-off solos. LaGravanese keeps his technique fairly subtle, using long handheld takes to contain each song and instructing his cameraman to dance along with the stars like another member of the troupe. It’s a cute approach and works more often than not.
Kendrick obviously plays the female lead in this equation, and the role milks all her talents. From her opening tear-filled ballad, Kendrick doesn’t just sing her songs; she feels them. Alternating between bouncing bouts of happiness and pained depression, the actress creates a fully realized character with very little straight dialogue. It’s an extraordinary performance yet feels as effortless as always. Kendrick might be a multi-talented beauty, but she also looks more like a real person than the usual string-bean starlet and can play a credible human no matter how stylized the subject matter.
Kendrick’s duet partner is Jeremy Jordan, a longtime Broadway vet with a handful of screen credits. Jordon nails his musical requirements with ease, but can’t quite match Kendrick in characterization. His movements and performance are just a little too broad, more suited to stage than screen. It still works in context since the all-singing-all-the-time movie is highly stylized. Yet it’s also supposed to feel like a slice-of-life beneath all the theatrics and Jordon doesn’t quite succeed in that department.
That split in quality between the performers sums up the film’s minor failings as a whole. In fits and starts, the musical brilliantly walks a tightrope between the harsh truth of life and a heightened idealization of art, just never quite makes it across. Some of this comes down to the details, like Jordan’s character’s skyrocketing young literary career, which never comes off as more than fantasy, especially since all of the cited examples of his brilliant writing are so mediocre. Meanwhile, Kendrick’s parallel failings to strike on Broadway after endless futile auditions, and her depressing stops in regional summer theater, carry a harsh sting beneath the whimsy.
Likewise, LaGravanese (who has always been a better screenwriter on projects like ‘The Fisher King’ and ‘The Ref’ than a director of movies like ‘P.S. I Love You’) strikes the right balance with his minor mumblecore musical style just slightly more often than he spoils a musical number with awkward staging. Still, what works in ‘The Last Five Years’ far outweighs what doesn’t. In particular, the half of the film carried by Kendrick is one of the best musicals of recent years. The other half isn’t so much a failure as it is charmingly mediocre with a few moments of triumph. That’s still pretty damn good.
In fact, the whole project is good enough to prove that the movie musical needn’t merely be the domain of giant popcorn blockbusters. The genre could use more offbeat projects like ‘The Last Five Years’, while the movie industry in general could use more Anna Kendrick.