TIFF 2014 Review: ‘The Last Five Years’

By September 9, 2014No Comments

Anna Kendrick gives a powerhouse performance in a film adaptation of the award-winning musical.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: cinematic love stories end too soon. The world doesn’t stop turning just because two attractive young people finally have sex and/or get married. Marriages, or even just long-term relationships, are wild, woolly, unpredictable beasts with excitingly lavish arguments and monumentally tender moments that make every day an adventure (and yes, occasionally a nightmare). But some movies do understand that. The Last Five Years is one of them, and although it never quite reaches the melancholic heights of something like Two for the Road or the wacky unpredictability of The Palm Beach Story, it’s nevertheless a thoroughly welcome entry in a too-small genre.

Adapted from the award-winning off-broadway musical by Jason Robert Brown by writer/director Richard LaGravenese (Beautiful Creatures), the film tells the story of a five-year romance between a struggling actor named Cathy, played by Anna Kendrick, and her successful novelist boyfriend-turned-husband Jamie, played by Hunky McGoodstud. (Wait, let me actually look that up… okay, it’s Jeremy Jordan from “Smash.”) The movie is told in and out of order, beginning with Kendrick still hurting from their inevitable breakup and working backwards, and also with Jamie’s perspective on their first date and moving forwards. Their two stories intersect in the middle and reach a parallel at the end, a finale that doesn’t quite reach poignance but certainly satisfies nevertheless.

It’s a musical too, and boy howdy is it serious about that. The Last Five Years consists entirely of songs, each delving into different moments and struggles throughout their relationship, transitioning effortlessly (and sometimes with an intentionally comical amount of effort) from tragedy to romance, and from humor to serious soul-searching. It would be surprising to learn if there were more than a few dozen lines of spoken dialogue in this 90-minute musical, which is bound to be abrasive to moviegoers who can’t stand musicals unless they’re comprised entirely of repurposed pop hits, but these tunes are soulful, funny, and dear god does Anna Kendrick belt them out. It’s a powerhouse performance from the actress, and Mr. McGoodstud (a.k.a. Mr. Jordan) holds his own too, although his broader delivery would probably play better to the back row of a crowded theater than it does in the many close-ups Mr. LaGravenese uses to dramatize his scenes.

The staging of The Last Five Years varies from slightly elaborate to so incredibly simple you’d swear Richard LaGravenese just made it up as he went along, but it fits the film’s intimate tone. The world rarely dances with Cathy and Jamie and seldom reacts in any other way to their many solos and duets. The Last Five Years is about a world shared by two people, and that world only exists when they are together, mentally or physically, and whether they like it or not. That’s also why it’s never grating that these two people have mostly minor problems: the emotions are pretty universal, and the situation is admittedly slightly simplistic, but whether you immediately connect with their many foibles or not it’s obvious that the problems of these two people only amount to a hill of beans to them and them alone. Just like most love stories.

But most importantly, The Last Five Years explores so many different facets of Cathy and Jamie’s relationship, with so many different and/or reflexive types of numbers, that the movie successfully casts its spell on you. (For the record, the alternative would have been a curse.) If you have any affinity for this kind of storytelling – the proper litmus test would be The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, an admittedly a better film – then you’ll probably be as enchanted with The Last Five Years as I am. There isn’t a bum number in the bunch – although “The Schmuel Song” comes pretty close (Hunky makes it work) – and Anna Kendrick in particular is just so aptly suited to this material that you won’t want to take your eyes off of her. Dear God, she’s good.

Maybe The Last Five Years is a little more intoxicating than it is genuinely great. But that’s still pretty damned good. There’s schmaltz to be found here but also some genuine thoughtfulness about the ways that little resentments build up when one lover’s individual journey outpaces the other’s. The path to their love affair’s demise would probably have been interminable if it were told in purely chronological order – it’s that obvious from the outset, even without the gimmickry – but by playing every part of this love affair at once The Last Five Years weaves a lovely little tapestry. I would say “encore” but after a whirlwind romance like this I think I need a little “me” time.