The Last Five Years (2014)

Writer & Director: Richard LaGravenese
Cinematographer: Steven Meizler
Composer: Jason Robert Brown
Cast: Anna Kendrick & Jeremy Jordan.

Movie adaptations of musicals are tricky and don’t always work. For every Chicago and Evita there’s a Les Miserables or Phantom of the Opera (I still can’t believe someone thought that casting Gerard Butler or Russell Crowe in singing parts was a good idea). It’s hard enough to make a satisfying movie that will attract an audience using as basis an established and successful musical. Rent won Tonys and a Peabody and casted almost all of the original Broadway actors and still was a flop. But making a musical based on an off-Broadway show whose original run was two months long? What were they smoking? Add to the equation that there are really only two actors, and the story is told simultaneously in chronological order and in reverse and my disbelief that this film ever got made. The budget for the film was relatively small, a mere 2 million dollars, and yet it obviously was still too much, as the film grossed a paltry $145,000.

The film is not bad, but it’s obvious after watching it why it just wasn’t successful. The casting of Anna Kendrick (Cathy) and Jeremy Jordan (Jamie), two Tony nominated actors, was a good one, but it ultimately couldn’t save this film that failed before the first scene was even filmed. A good movie musical has to have one really important component: a really good soundtrack. Musicals like Mamma Mia, Rock of Ages, and even original musical movies like Moulin Rouge! have less of an uphill climb because the featured songs can be found on most people’s iPods. People know the songs and winning an audience over is that much easier as a result. If the soundtrack is not part of the collective conscious outside of Broadway fans then the songs better be good. I went to see Chicago in the movie theater in 2002 when I was in college for a friend’s birthday. My group of friends was made up of theater nerds who somehow welcomed me in their clique in spite of the fact that at the time I couldn’t name a single musical to save my life. We would go out to dinner and they would break out into song, leaving me the only baffled viewer who didn’t know all the words (or any words) to “La Vie Boheme” or to “Ease on Down the Road”. In spite of my complete  ignorance I went to the film with an open mind. I walked out of the film humming several of the songs and could recall lyrics to “All that Jazz” and “Cell Block Tango” even though it was the first time I ever heard those songs. Evita has “Don’t Cry for me Argentina”, West Side Story has many acts including “America”, Rent is a smorgasbord of radio-friendly rocking songs, even The Producers had a lot of ditties that people hummed as they waled away from the film. Memorable tunes and lyrics are a must, not necessarily for the Broadway stage, but for the movies. It’s why Les Miserables, an incredibly successful Broadway smash, aggravated and annoyed pretty much everyone I know, including me. It’s also the biggest problem with The Last Five Years: there is not one single memorable or hummable song, not one, and that alone makes this film a problem.

And yet there is something watchable and innovative about the movie. Cathy’s story is told in reverse, as Jamie has just left her and ended their five year relationship. On the other hand Jamie’s story begins immediately after the couple has first met. In a savvy directorial and cinematographic decision, the color scheme keeps switching: the scenes which take place in the defunct or crumbling periods of the relationship take on a deep blue hue that darkens the lens, the happy moments are highlighted by saturated and lively tones. The music is also heavily influenced by the moods of their respective singers. Jamie and Cathy take turns singing, each getting their own song that provides a snapshot of their relationship at a given time. The only duet in the entire movie happens at the halfway mark during the wedding scene.

It’s interesting how each song provides the perspective of only one character, and we must wait until the other character reaches the same place to see their viewpoint on the same series of events. I kept wondering while watching this film if it wouldn’t have been better had this not been a musical. Without the distracting and ultimately unnecessary songs I believe I would have been more invested in the story and the final product would have been better, simply put. The music got annoying and after a few numbers the entire film felt formulaic and predictable, especially since we know exactly what happens from the very first scene and the only thing that carries us through are the songs. I really like Kendrick and I guess Jordan is fine, but this was one film I wished I hadn’t wasted my time on. The good news, I guess, is that while the couple lost five years on their relationship, I only lost 94 minutes of my life.

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