One of my close friends introduced me to Jason Robert Brown’s musical The Last Five Years when we were freshmen, and I’ve been listening to the original cast recording regularly ever since. I’ve never seen the stage production itself, and that added degree of separation gave me an uncanny feeling while watching writer-director Richard LaGravenese’s film adaptation. The film was like an interesting person I’d heard a lot about from mutual friends but had never directly interacted with. That said, our long-awaited meeting was pleasant – but not without its disappointments.
The film succeeds in adapting the musical’s narrative structure. The story, based on Brown’s own failed marriage, plays out as a series of vignettes, alternating between a husband and wife’s perspectives. Cathy Hiatt’s (Anna Kendrick) timeline begins at the end of her marriage to Jamie Wellerstein’s (Jeremy Jordan) and moves in reverse. The resulting tonal shifts are often wrenching but never feel unnatural. The director hews loyally to the arc of the musical and keeps its complicated emotional core intact.
LaGravenese does make one critical departure from the source. Stage versions of the musical keep Cathy and Jamie totally isolated until their storylines meet. The film translates this separation into stilted, one-sided interactions between the characters, but it works. As one lover sings, the other stays mostly silent, reacting with gestures or minimal verbal responses. I found this stylistic choice bizarrely thrilling. It’s an ingenious way to visually illustrate two people growing apart.
There’s a great example of this in one of my favorite moments in the film. During Cathy’s best solo, the rousing “I Can Do Better Than That,” Jamie drives with Cathy on his way to meet her parents. The shot is framed from the driver’s side of the car. Jamie is on the right side of the shot, closer to the camera, looking off-screen towards the road ahead. Cathy sits against her side of the car and faces Jamie directly as she sings. At this point in the film we’ve been heavily reminded that their marriage goes south, and this 30-second shot creates an invisible but undeniable barrier between them.
Cinematographer Steven Meizler’s distinct use of color helps to establish the film’s timeline. Scenes set in the early part of Jamie and Cathy’s marriage are lit in bright, glossy hues that befit their respective summers in New York and Ohio. As their relationship deteriorates, the color palette becomes noticeably funereal, with heavy emphasis on blacks, grays and strong shadows. The colors unsubtly embody the metaphorical death of the relationship, but the aesthetic is effective in its simplicity.
Indeed substance, not style, is where The Last Five Years runs into trouble. Jason Robert Brown’s music is lively and irresistible, but his lyrics only skim the surface of Cathy and Jamie’s marital woes. Some of the songs address their deeper individual problems head-on, but even then it’s just through a few choice words.
“A Miracle Would Happen” gives Jamie the chance to playfully explain his temptation to pursue other women as his literary career takes off, and the corresponding sequence in the film offers one of the sharpest integrations of Brown’s music into the narrative. But later, the sinister lament “Nobody Needs to Know” fails to identify his issues with the marriage beyond fleeting mentions of his struggles to remain faithful to his wife’s demands. Cathy’s challenges are similarly skimmed over as none of her solos quite capture her grievances with Jamie. We see glimpses of their crumbling marriage but don’t learn enough about the deeper problems driving these two apart.
The source material’s shortcomings reduce the plot to unfortunate tropes. Jamie’s infidelity and Cathy’s devotion are overemphasized. Brown’s musical identifies flaws in both spouses, but LaGravenese’s film squarely pegs Jamie and Cathy as respective marital villain and victim. I could dig in to interpret the hints that the songs drop about their evenly shared responsibility for the relationship’s collapse, but the film doesn’t present it in a way that makes me care.
Both Kendrick and Jordan deliver vibrant, committed performances, and have excellent musical chops to boot. The rub is that their characters aren’t especially interesting under scrutiny. I accepted what was happening onscreen on the music’s merit, but the film felt largely like one long music video: an extended montage meant to be accepted without much questioning.
Jamie’s a rising novelist, Cathy’s a struggling actress and they’re falling out of love. But this is what they do, not who they are. And I felt as if Brown and LaGravenese meant for me to simply go along with that sparse overview of their intersecting character arcs. That sense of laziness cheapens my genuine enjoyment of The Last Five Years.
It’s tremendously easy to fall in love with the idea of someone. There’s not a person reading this who hasn’t fallen into that trap, myself included, and the fallacy helps explain my feelings on The Last Five Years. I built up an admittedly romanticized idea of what the film adaptation would be and led myself to believe that there was a great deal of depth to the musical beyond its collection of catchy songs. The truth is that The Last Five Years looks and sounds pretty, but is an ultimately superficial exploration of broken romance.
Movie Verdict: Meh