I have very seldom, if ever, seen a film that was not made better by the presence of the lovely and talented Anna Kendrick, whose career trajectory has remained surprisingly calm despite an Academy Award nomination (Up in the Air) and a steady presence in one of the decade's most successful cinematic series, The Twilight films. Despite her successes, Kendrick is an intelligent actress who has consistently chosen her cinematic projects well including this film, The Last Five Years, an adaptation of Jason Robert Brown's 2001 Off-Broadway musical.
The Last Five Years is a musical. Yes, a real musical. I'm not talking about a Hollywood-tinged musical that allows for restless, impatient audiences and the usual American audience's need for occasional distraction. There's minimal dialogue to be heard in The Last Five Years and, in fact, there's very little else going on other than the relationship between Cathy (Kendrick) and Jamie (Jeremy Jordan, television's Smash).
The film utilizes a backward/forward technique that is occasionally distracting and features a romance that is occasionally rather lacking in the romance department, but despite the film's flaws director Richard LaGravanese has a strong sense of what makes a musical work and a cast that is able to make that happen. Everything kicks off with Kendrick's Cathy sullen and alone singing "Jamie is over," a melancholy tune contrasting with Jamie's tune to follow in which he sings of a Shiksa goddess in a tone joy-filled and filled with jubilation.
In case you're wondering what it's all about, The Last Five Years wraps around the kind of New York couple that seems made for each other except for the fact that they're really not. Cathy is an aspiring actress, Jamie a wannabe writer. Jamie's career skyrockets. Cathy's does not. The two are beautiful alone and together, they meet and marry and deal with everything that married couple's deal with together. Then, they fall apart. It all happens within their first and last five years.
After Cathy's revealing opening tune, the film flashes back to where it all began. While it could all get confusing, it doesn't. Jamie tells his story from beginning to end, while Cathy's goes from end to beginning. They meet in the middle, our knowing how they began and how they end doesn't at all ruin the emotional impact of everything that unfolds.
While Jeremy Jordan is a pleasant surprise here as Jamie, the truth is that his performance is at least a little overwhelmed by the strong presence and vocals of Anna Kendrick. Those who know Kendrick outside her most famous roles will certainly know that singing is nothing new for Kendrick, whose career began with Camp and has included musical performances in the Pitch Perfect films and the recent Into the Woods. While Kendrick nails the vocals, she's also got a strong cinematic sensibility about her and understands how to make it all work on the big screen. Kendrick infuses Cathy with all the heart and soul and remorse and regret that we'd hope for, while Jordan's strength lies primarily in his assured vocals and ability to sell becoming a bigger success than his partner.
Richard LaGravanese has broadened The Last Five Years without losing everything that made it a winning Off-Broadway production. The film feels bigger yet intimate, stagey yet appropriate for the big screen.
Opening in limited nationwide release this Valentine's Day weekend with indie distributor Radius-TWC, The Last Five Years will most certainly please fans of the Off-Broadway musical and Anna Kendrick's legion of fans but those who thought Into the Woods was too musical would do well to stay away.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic