“The Last Five Years,” starring Anna Kendrick, Jeremy Jordan and their powerful pipes, plays like a Broadway musical, because basically it is a musical. A very distinctive Jason Robert Brown musical, albeit the run was off-Broadway. With clever lyrics, contemporary music, and a playful relationship at its center, drama is ever present in this look at romance, ambition and fame.
The film, directed and adapted by Richard LaGravenese, stays so close to a stage sensibility, though, it’s hard not to wonder why go through all the trouble and expense if the transition between mediums is going to be so minimal. “The Last Five Years” is not unpleasant to watch — the leads are delightful — but as a movie experience, it’s not especially satisfying either.
The scenery does move, there is that, with beauty shots of New York City from all sides. The story begins as the couple’s marriage is ending when we first meet a teary Cathy (Kendrick) singing a sad song in the apartment she and her husband, Jamie (Jordan), shared. There’s a “Dear Cathy” letter on their personal letterhead that explains the end.
The rest unfolds by seesawing between their points of view at opposite points in time: Cathy’s moving backward from the breakup to the first blush, Jamie’s moving forward from the meet-cute to the end. It leaves the narrative drifting between early years and later years, as Jamie’s novelist career goes from nonexistent to superstar while Cathy’s acting career remains a struggle from beginning to end. Marriage comes in the middle.
The themes are compelling and certainly reflective of modern problems. Career imperatives force a long-distance relationship, with Cathy spending summers in Ohio in stock company productions, the distance not making Jamie’s heart grow fonder. Success provides the central conflict, the story examining its impact on a couple when one has it, one does not and both want it.
Brown’s music and lyrics do tell pretty much all sides of that story. Jordan, with a Tony nomination for “Newsies,” and “Pitch Perfect” Kendrick definitely have the voices to handle the theatricality required. Indeed, actual dialogue, on the few occasions it does surface, seems out of place.
The camera itself poses one of the greatest challenges. What can be magical and believable on a stage can turn into a curiosity on screen. An intimate moment, caught in close-up, becomes absurd when the actors are also belting out a tune or bouncing off the bed to do a few dance moves.
It’s never been easy to move between musical theater and screen. The big-screen versions of even the best — “West Side Story,” “Cabaret” and “Chicago” to name a few — with Tonys and Oscars lining their shelves, still seemed more like well-choreographed stage productions inventively captured on film.
The lesson: if you’re not going to break out of the box when you move mediums with a musical, it is critical to use the box very, very well. Unfortunately, “The Last Five Years” does neither.
‘The Last Five Years’
MPAA rating: PG-13 for sexual material, brief strong language and a drug image
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes
Playing: Sundance Sunset Theaters, West Hollywood, Laemmle’s Pasadena Playhouse, Pasadena, iTunes and VOD