Anna Kendrick has a lovely voice. It’s a stage voice meant solely to project, but it’s legit. She carries herself with the prim and proper presence of a trained actor. She’s the perfect fit for an adaptation of Jason Robert Brown’s 2001 musical, The Last Five Years. Well, she’s tailored for the Broadway version at least, because for a tonally tricky film like this, even her show biz talents can’t overcome the wonkiness of the material. In fact, they reinforce the awkwardness. Theater kids, amirite?
The Last Five Years is a musical dramedy about the challenges that face a young artistic couple. It’s a New York story through and through about wanting to be an entertainer and the privileges one abuses upon finding the slightest amount of success. We’re all bitter, man, whether success comes or stays away, man. Deep underneath all the songs is a bittersweet story about a failed marriage and tainted dreams, but it takes so long to grasp. Just try to make sense of this big-hearted conundrum that’s at once sappy, sweet, boisterous, impassioned, cutesy, and so very exhausting.
Even better: Try to imagine an episode of Girls, scrubbed of honesty and told in song through a punch-drunk lens.
Anna Kendrick is Cathy, the very model of a struggling actress: perky, precocious, uncertain about life and stuff. You know, like, straight out of the cast of Rent? She falls hard for Jamie (Jeremy Jordan, an actor of frustrating energy). He turns into a hotshot, jerkwad writer. But these two try, and that’s all that matters, because it’s love in the big city.
Tonally, this is tough to take because it’s so disparate. Dramatically, it’s oversentimental. Musically, there are only so many rapturous confessions of blistering feeling that a person can take. Every little emotion, annoyance, or aside is met with honeysuckle wailing from two loud leads. And that’s not to dismiss the musical as drama truncated; it’s just tricky to atone for the clashing moods of this story. Bursts of lyrical joy pre-hanky panky, following the lament of lost marriage in the opening shots? Richard LaGravanese, a sensitive and very distinct writer (Behind the Candelabra, The Fisher King), is clearly game for the material, both adapting and directing Brown’s play, but he never quite gets a handle on the story.
But boy, does Anna Kendrick try her hardest to captivate while telling this tale, making for some of The Last Five Years’ most authentic bits. When Cathy sings about her neuroses regarding auditions, or calls her husband out for his bull, the film’s in tune. Otherwise, it’s a clattering romance. Kendrick sings in the arms of her lover, and, well, how do you get such choppy lyrics like these right on film?
See, we’re laughing
I think we’re gonna be okay
I mean, we’ll have to try a little harder
And bend things to and fro
To make this love as special
As it was five years ago
I mean, you made it to Ohio!
Who knows where else we can go?
Oh, the lament! Wait, no, attitude! The struggle on the streets? Eh, who cares?
The whole thing comes off like a precious Midwestern teen’s high school play about life in the big city and the dreamers that try to make it. But at what cost? At? What? Cost? Come the end, you can’t wait for that teen’s dreams to get crushed. We all know better than this. We all know that New York is nothing like a Taylor Swift song.
One important thing to point out, and this felt likes the film’s biggest hurdle, is the cinematography. The swirly, spastic camerawork. It’s trying to get long shots from every angle for an already blocked and rehearsed play. Freeform French cinema this ain’t. A steadi-cam operator floats around in every shot, statically, noticeably. It’s amazing, actually. The film was allegedly shot in 21 days on the streets of New York City, and to provide authenticity, they apparently had a wild street derelict operate the camera. Bold move, for an already too-bold film.