Thursday, October 15, 2015

Movie Review - The Last Five Years

The Last Five Years (2015)
Starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan
Directed by Richard LaGravenese

In the liner notes of the cd of the movie's soundtrack, lyricist and composer Jason Robert Brown says that he has read often that The Last Five Years is "the musical for people who don't like musicals."  While I would certainly consider myself a fan of the genre, I can understand the meaning behind that sentiment.  Although it's told nearly entirely through song (there is likely less than three minutes of spoken dialog in the ninety minute film), The Last Five Years is a hefty drama moreso than anything else that just happens to tell its story through music.  Much like the fantastic 2007 musical Once, The Last Five Years is a story about the highs and lows of love.  Also much like OnceThe Last Five Years is one of the best musicals yet to come out of the recent influx of the genre ever since the one-two punch of Moulin Rouge-Chicago back in 2001-02.

With literate, smart lyrics and intimate orchestrations oftentimes utilizing only a piano and a violin or two, The Last Five Years tells the story of Cathy and Jamie (Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan) and the inevitable dissolving of their marriage.  Don't worry - that's not a spoiler.  The Last Five Years tells its story in a very unique way.  Cathy's side of the story is told from the end to the beginning, meaning as the film opens, we see Cathy devastated after Jamie has walked out the door.  Jamie's side of the story begins at the start of their blossoming relationship.  The film goes back and forth between a scene involving Cathy (moving backwards in time) and a scene involving Jamie (moving forwards in time).  The two timelines eventually meet in the middle...and then continue moving along so as the film ends we see Jamie's despair and Cathy's hope concerning their pairing.

It may seem confusing in concept, but if you have knowledge of the conceit before the film begins it actually works pretty well and provides a rather ingenious way of looking at things.  Granted, the back-and-forth timeline does take some getting used to and there are moments where I had to question at what time we were during "the last five years," but that confusion does dissipate quickly and the uniqueness of the whole thing shines through.  [This does beg the question that if it's necessary to know of the back-and-forth nature before the film begins, did director and adaptor Richard LaGravenese do a good enough job?  I'll try and answer this one in a bit.]

With the exception of the timelines crossing in the middle of the film, all of the songs are solos with Cathy or Jamie expressing their thoughts to one another through song...and it's rather genius.  While it's true not everything lands perfectly -- there's a little bit of a lull in the fifth and sixth songs -- the seeming simplicity of the tunes (which are really anything but simple) make the constant singing instantly believable and shockingly introspective.  Jason Robert Brown's libretto and accompanying music span a wide range of genres from jazz to ballads to uptempo, but even the "showstopper" numbers are done modestly -- as mentioned, we're not talking about full orchestral pieces here, but rather smaller orchestrations that may mimic rousing toe-tappers, but don't completely take us to that typical "musical" place.  And that's a good thing.

The film essentially is a two-person piece and for a film like this to succeed, the actors playing Cathy and Jamie need to really excel at their game and Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan do not disappoint.  From Kendrick's opening number as tears roll down her face as she grippingly tells us about Jamie having left her to her gleefully happy final number following the initial consummation of their relationship, Kendrick takes us on a believable backwards journey as an aspiring actress who finds herself living in the shadow of her famous author husband.  Kendrick has become the go-to gal for musicals, but this is the film that really gives her a chance to shine and showcase her ability to truly emote through song.

Her counterpart Jordan is also a revelation here.  A relative unknown on the cinematic landscape, he perfectly conveys Jamie's infatuation with the engaging Cathy, yet understandably gets frustrated when Cathy distances herself from him when her acting skills can't match her husband's success as a writer.  While Kendrick gets to start the film with a real emotional bang, Jordan is the one who gets to end it with a revelatory final number that I found absolutely riveting, showcasing the emotional depths to which his character has fallen.

Director Richard LaGravanese has a difficult task in making the film comprehensible and I think he does all that he can to help his audience grasp where we are in the story's timeline.  Clever placement of calendar dates or the script's usage of certain words key us in -- but you have to be paying attention.  Having read up on the Off-Broadway production of this piece, on stage the two actors never share a scene except for at the very beginning, the middle, and the very end.  They're essentially singing to an empty stage only acting as if the other character were there.  Obviously, that wouldn't work in a film, but LaGravanese still is tasked with the rather tricky concept of only one of the characters doing any singing in any particular scene while the other stands and simply has reaction shots.  Somehow, this works with LaGravanese utilizing a variety of camera techniques -- including some rather long takes which are simplistic but stellar -- in order to keep things interesting.

The Last Five Years has a few flaws, but I have found myself over the last several days being willing to overlook them.  Much like Once, this musical film has stuck with me in ways I never expected.  The story of Cathy and Jamie and their relationship is beautifully told.  I may not have necessarily been humming Jason Robert Brown's tunes at the film's conclusion, but they touched me in rather surprising ways -- and managed to motivate me to purchase the film's soundtrack which is something I rarely do.  If you go into this with the knowledge of the time-jumping conceit, The Last Five Years is a movie that stands a chance of really affecting you and I'm sure will land on my Best Film list in next year's RyMickey Awards.  Even if you're not a musical aficionado, as Jason Robert Brown says, this is "the musical for people who don't like musicals."

Edit 12/28/15:  So, a second viewing has unfortunately sullied my view of the film a tiny bit.  The biggest issue with the film is that the flick the whole "middle" of the film is just disappointing in terms of its songs.  The opening moments of sheer happiness and utter sadness and the closing moments also of sheer happiness and utter sadness are fantastic and contain some of the best scenes of films in 2015.  However, it's those middle moments that prove to be confoundingly repetitive and admittedly lacking in excitement.  Also, despite the nice acting job on display by Kendrick, there is a slight grating aspect to her voice which I absolutely noticed the first time around, but tried to gloss over.  

I note in my final paragraph above that "The Last Five Years has a few flaws, but I have found myself...willing to overlook them."  On a second viewing, it's much more difficult to overlook the flick's issues.  I still stand by the fact that there are portions of this film that are astoundingly heartbreaking and beautifully shot, directed, and acted.  It's just that the middle thirty minutes are a bit of a rougher go.

Edit 9/15/16:  So, a third viewing of the flick recognizes the problems I noticed in the second viewing, but I appreciated the storytelling aspects of these slower moments much more.  I appreciated different songs than I had the first and second times around.  The more "grating" aspect of Kendrick's voice on some of the higher belts wasn't as prominent (although I will admit it is there) and she does such a good job at emoting throughout the film that I walked away thoroughly impressed.  I'm still keeping my grade a 'B', however overall, this 'B' is better than several of the 'B+'s" I doled out in 2015.  I'd much rather watch this flawed movie than several of my B+'s.

The RyMickey Rating:  A- (original 10/15/15)
The RyMickey Rating:  B (updated 12/29/15)
The RyMickey Rating:  B (updated 9/15/16)


  1. I got to see this in theatre--we showed it for one night, one screening, I think. And I made a point of going because, hello, musical. And Anna Kendrick. And also, Jeremy Jordan was Jack Kelly (ish), so there's a strange sense of loyalty there that I probably shouldn't feel since I don't really give a hoot about the play-musical version. BUT--he was also on Smashed, which I guess I feel the same about as Newsies: The Musical. I wasn't NOT going to watch it. His number of "Broadway, Here I Come" on Smashed is really nice to listen to. I think he went to Ithaca College, actually. Perhaps that's enough to know about him.

    On to the film--I did not know about the two-time-line-in-opposite-directions conceit (aside from that it would be telling both points of view of a relationship breaking down) going in. It actually didn't register until the scene (I guess the second scene) where they are out on the steps in front of the house and he walks away from her (I think she was wearing shorts or something). I don't actually remember the scene or really what was happening--maybe he wasn't walking away from her--, but the realization about the two mirrored, or reveresed, or whatever timelines hit me so hard that I'm only really recalling the image I saw when this happened. And I thought---Oooooooooh. Wish I had realized that sooner.

    But the movie stuck with me for a while after. I liked it and would definitely watch again--probably would learn the songs as well to sing-along to on my own. Hopefully it pops up on Netflix instant here.


    I ended up watching all of Smash too (I think), but that second season was horrendous, I thought. And I didn't really think I liked him either -- but that may have been the character as opposed to him as an actor because in The Last Five Years I was impressed.

    I admit that I did know the premise having read a review or two of the movie prior to watching it. (I don't think I'd heard of this musical at all prior to hearing that there was going to be a movie based on it.) That helped. But, I still found myself slightly confused during maybe the first four scenes or so.

    Kendrick's voice at times seems a little shrill, but I think her portrayal of her character is successful enough to overlook it. After reading a bunch of reviews and "fan reactions" after the fact (since I found myself so taken by the film) that most people find Jamie completely to blame in the relationship since he cheated, but I found Jamie's storyline to be particularly telling in terms of Cathy's character and her resentment to Jamie's success leading to the downfall of the marriage.

    That's what perhaps was most interesting about the flick. Getting two sides to the story and seeing how each character views the relationship.

    This one really had a "Once" effect on me. It captivated me at first viewing and I was REALLY surprised by that. Maybe it has something to do with doomed relationships or something -- I need that in my musicals in order for them to be successful or something...

  3. I just remembered that the girl sitting right next to me sang along to the whole movie. And, as you mentioned, there's like three lines of the fact that I still liked it and actually forgot about that part (which I think must have had me seething at the time), means yeah--maybe I'll think about getting the soundtrack as well.

    I agree that they both contributed to demise of relationship--she was dealing with all that "reality is that most people don't achieve the dreams they had in highschool/college" stuff which can be a real bummer--especially when someone large in your life is meanwhile achieving. It's hard to forgive cheaters though--just break up with someone, you know?

    I'm glad someone else I know saw it so I can share a bit of squee about it. You, of course, were who I would have guessed out of the people I know. I'm always recommending stuff to my mom, thinking she'll watch it so we can talk about it (and we have similar tastes, so there's a chance she'll at least like what I recommend)--but, nope, she never watches.

  4. By no means am I condoning Jamie's actions, however, I can't help but think that there's more to Cathy's story than we really see that really pushed Jamie over the edge. The fact that this is missing is partly intriguing. Then again, there's a song where Jamie discusses the allure of women who previously wouldn't give him the time of day and now fawn over him since his book is published. So maybe he really is just an a-hole. I think it's a combination of things, but I don't feel he's solely the one responsible for their break-up.

    You're the only person I know who's seen this and I'm very nervous about showing it to others because I feel like the concept is one that you either buy into or despise. No middle ground. As of now, it's easily my number one movie of the year...but that's not saying much considering I don't even think I've seen twenty 2015 movies yet.