Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
It’s rare to see a full-bodied independent musical released theatrically in today’s cinematic landscape. Told almost entirely through song, The Last Five Years is an unevenly affecting romance told through the eyes of both of its lover protagonists. As each of their careers face the traditional ebb-and-flow associated with artists in New York, one’s success leads to another’s emotional downfall. Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan both fill their roles compellingly, exuding palpable romantic chemistry and gamely singing the on-the-nose and lavishly obvious lyrics. That’s one of the core problems associated with musical adaptations, particularly ones that reveal almost all of their character and story through song. It’s frustratingly obvious, a flaw that I found with Into the Woods that originates primarily from Sondheim’s influence on stage music. In its adaptation to film, The Last Five Years does explore compelling, open cinematography and a non-linear narrative that challenges the viewer, but it also leaves little past its surface and falls into repetition in its final half hour.
The film focuses on Cathy Hiatt (Anna Kendrick), a struggling actress, and Jamie Wellerstein (Jeremy Jordan), a fledgling novelist, who carry their romance to New York City in the hopes of pursuing their dreams. Cathy helms from Ohio and has failed to find herself in the vast acting world of New York. She’s been called for many auditions but had little to no success, trying out for Broadway shows, routine acting gigs, and even settling on bartending in the downtime between those options. She waits five hours at some points in hopes of getting an acting opportunity, but either succumbs to pressure or doesn’t know if she wants the role. Simply put, she cannot seem to find herself. Jamie, on the other hand, finds an agent that trusts and respects his work, leading to his success continuing to grow as his first novel finds publication. He often visits with other writers, publishers, and various industry people while Cathy stands on the sidelines as a discontent cheerleader. But she wants to be more than that, and doesn’t appreciate Jamie’s dismissal of her presence at times when she needs him most.
Writer-director Richard LaGravenese works from the play originally scribed by Jason Robert Brown. There’s a semblance of a longer, more balanced narrative in the mix somewhere, as there are notions of familial scenes and stronger supporting characters in the background, but they never come to fruition. While the main characters aren’t boring by any means, they are often one-note and repeat the same emotions, albeit in different songs. The music, however, is quite absorbing and always insightful, even if it is a bit too agreeable for narrative advancement. Kendrick is thoroughly phenomenal in a role that gives her plenty to work with, and Jordan often giggles through his happy songs and falls into the role of potentially manipulative man in the film’s latter half. They’re both great singers, which is a huge plus. The non-linear narrative surprisingly doesn’t help or hurt the film, since it gives the audience a broad spectrum of emotions early on that these characters feel, only to narrow them over the course of the film. The Last Five Years finds sincerity in its occasionally derivative romance, and will undoubtedly please musical enthusiasts looking for well-sung, on-point lyrics.
Grade: ★★★ (out of 5)