We seem to be in a new era of movie musicals. We’ve got the televised live shows, which sort of count, and range from hate-watch to “fine.” There are subpar adaptations of great shows (Into the Woods, Jersey Boys), alongside movies that try so desperately hard NOT to be musicals that nothing makes any sense at all. (I’m looking at you, new Annie.) But it’s rare that a musical is adapted to the screen in a way that makes for a great movie without sacrificing the heart of what made it land so well with audiences in the theatre. The musicals you grew up on (The Sound of Music, Cabaret, name your musical poison) probably did it well. Chicago managed to nail its adaptation. And The Last Five Years has done it. Jason Robert Brown’s play is not perfect (we’ll get into that), but it is a favorite for many. And the movie does an exceptional job at capturing what makes it so great.
The movie takes one of the more original paths to telling the story of a couple. Over the course of about 95 minutes, we see nearly an entire relationship, but told from opposite ends. (And told, by the way, almost entirely through song. This is really closer to an opera than a musical in the amount of dialogue spoken vs. sung. If musical theatre isn’t already a part of your life, this may be jarring, but stick with it, give in, you’ll get used to it.) Cathy (Anna Kendrick) starts us at the end of their 5 years together, as she finds herself with a Dear John letter and an empty New York apartment. But the next song shows us Jamie (Jeremy Jordan) at the start of their relationship, falling in love with this shiksa. From there, they tell us their whole story (or as much of their story as can be crammed into an hour and a half), Cathy working backwards with Jamie moving forwards through time. Each is present in the other’s vision of their story, but more as a silent partner or a memory version of themselves, someone to bounce a sung monologue off of. Which, ultimately, fits their narrative all too well. Cathy is a struggling actress, basically a professional auditioner spending horrible summers doing regional theatre in Ohio, and Jamie is a writer who had way too much success dropped in his lap way too early. They’re both too wrapped up in their own individual lives to really be there for each other. All of their problems center around a lack of support and of communication, so of course they can’t share this story.
In the end (or, actually, right from the start) you may crave something a bit deeper from The Last Five Years. It borders so closely on being a painfully honest depiction of an actual relationship (but, you know, with choreography breaks). But 90 minutes is not enough to dig past the surface, and the relationship is so unbalanced that there’s nowhere to turn or be surprised. When we meet Cathy, she tells us about Jamie’s faults — his self-absorption, his refusal to communicate — and he never proves her wrong or shows anything deeper. It’s hard not to feel that the story would be WAY more satisfying if we could sympathize with him even a little.
Still, the story may not hit the core of what it could be, but it breaks the surface. The play has a cultish following for a reason. The music — especially Cathy’s first two songs — are so brutally honest they may crack you right open. And the feat the stage version manages in weaving these stories together with only two actors in a single space is not entirely lost here. Richard LaGravenese’s decision to shoot almost entirely handheld may give you nausea at times, but more than anything, it creates an intimacy that’s essential with this story. Many of us were skeptical when early clips were released because they felt flat and disjointed. It turns out they were, but only when standing alone without context. This movie has a flow, a momentum to rival that of the play, that is both necessary and impressive. This is a solid love (or anti-love, really) story, with an exceptional cast, in one of the best movie musical adaptations of recent years. You could do a lot worse than that.
Vivian Kane could think of worse things than a summer in Ohio.