MOVIE REVIEW: The Last Five Years

(Image courtesy of Alejandro Riera and the Chicago International Film Festival)

"THE LAST FIVE YEARS"-- 4 STARS

50th Chicago International Film Festival Centerpiece Special Presentation

On and off this website, this very writer has long advocated how much he generally dislikes movie musicals.  They're just not his thing.  Broadway, Disney, or otherwise, the majority of movie musicals are too often long, redundant, grating, poorly structured, and insufferable.  That's just one opinion and it's a hard one to sway.  The number of good movie musicals likely only fill a single hand over here.   "Singin' in the Rain" and "The Sound of Music" make the list, but not much else. 

So, when a strikingly and surprisingly good movie musical does comes around and impress, the only thing to do is shout and sing its praises from the proverbial mountaintops, just as the main characters would have the proclivity to do.  Well, we've got one right here, so cover your ears, and hear me roar!  "The Last Five Years," the adaptation of Jason Robert Brown's Off-Broadway hit, is a new movie musical that makes this website's handful list of true gems and delightful keepers.  If you have never heard of it, queue up the trailer right now.  This is the real film the date movie crowd should be seeking out this Valentine's Day weekend instead of the whips-and-chains-handcuffs (3:29 mark, wink) of some certain monochromatic thriller.

Richard LaGravenese, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of "The Fisher King" and "Freedom Writers" and the romantic adaptation specialist behind "The Bridges of Madison County," "The Horse Whisperer," "P.S., I Love You," and "Water for Elephants" is the captain steering this translation to the silver screen and pulls double-duty as the director and sole writer.  Produced in 2013, the film had its world premiere at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival last September before returning to its birthplace of Chicago as one-half of the Festival Centerpiece feature presentation (coupled with Bill Murray's vehicle "St. Vincent") of the historic 50th Chicago International Film Festival last October.  After a long wait, "The Last Five Years" is now hitting theaters and Video On Demand (check out Amazon Instant Video) at an ideal time.  It will play right here in Chicago at the Logan Theater starting February 20th (list of other locations).

Both the play and the film have a unique dual-perspective structure and order to its narrative.  Essentially, "The Last Five Years" follows two New York City lovers, Cathy and Jamie, and tells the story of their whirlwind courtship, culminating marriage, and eventual break-up over the course of, you guessed it, five years, from ages 23 to 28.  In song and in words, each tell their individual perspective on this time together, but in opposing order.  One goes forward and one goes backwards. 

"The Last Five Years" starts on Cathy Hiatt, played dynamically by the perfect Anna Kendrick, at the bottom and end of the relationship reflecting on what it all meant.  She is a struggling actress tired of casting calls and wallowing in summer stock theater out of state over the summers.  Her story goes in reverse to gradually work back to when she met her greatest love.  Jamie Wellerstein's arch, embodied by Broadway star Jeremy Jordan, is the one that moves forward from the glowing beginning to the embattled end.  He starts as an aspiring writer who pens a big hit and then lets the success go to his head.  Their stories are blended back and forth for a smooth 94 minutes.  Cathy and Jamie's stories converge in the middle at their marriage in a show-stopping peak duet of romance before diverging and finishing in the directions they were initially set on.

As a play, these scenes were acted predominantly in isolation by each performer.  In the film, Kendrick and Jordan share more company together, but the songs and moments are still exclusively their own internal and external monologues.  The chemistry between the two leads is incredibly engaging.  You really feel for this couple.  They grab you from Moment #1.  There is a sincerity and a lack of sarcasm overall that makes these two and their story approachable and devoid of extra fluff or cliche.  Their combined stories, balancing the shifts and reversals that occur between melancholy and euphoria, hold your attention every step of the way.  How you react and how you relate to their story isn't formulaic or cut and dry.  It begs for your own interpretation.

One key here to make this play (or any play really) translate into a film is the acting between songs.  That can be a double-edged sword in movie musicals from a casting and quality standpoint.  Not everyone is Julie Andrews and Gene Kelly.  You either hire singers than can nail the performances, but aren't natural actors for simpler scenes, or you hire actors that can convey presence and personas, but can't sing.  Russell Crowe from "Les Miserables" anyone?  

That aspect is one of the soaring successes for the "The Last Five Years."  Jeremy Jordan has a great and contagious youthful energy that carries over when he's not showing off his Broadway-trained pipes best known from "Newsies" and "Bonnie and Clyde."  He's a singer who can act.  Jordan can continue his charisma in between musical numbers and it works next to his big-time costar.    

The tremendous casting coup that is Anna Kendrick counts as a huge headlining star for a film of this size and scope with a paltry budget of just $2 million.  Next to Jennifer Lawrence, she's the biggest "It" girl around and is at the peak of her powers and social adoration.  Best yet, she's an actress who just happens to sing really darn well.  Greater than her popular singing stints in "Pitch Perfect" and "Into the Woods," "The Last Five Years" puts Kendrick's immense musical talent on display and she more than delivers.  If this plucky performance boosted by song doesn't make you endlessly impressed by her, there's nothing else that can be done.  She's that good.

After these stellar performances, it all comes down to the music and how it can be expanded to a wider visual palette fit for the big screen.  The single-setting play leaves the apartment and splashes its romance and storytelling across sunny exteriors and locations.  "The Last Five Years" is shot like a movie and not a play, so it employs the new movie musical trend (thanks to "Les Miserables") of the frequent, tight close-ups and moving camera during performances.  Some people hate that, while others like that intimacy.  In another cinematic quality, there's a whole stylistic theme going on of viewing and shooting through windows that used to a beautiful effect.

The cinematic style present properly serves the music of "The Last Five Years."  Jason Robert Brown, the original playwright, lyricist, and composer (who cameos as an audition pianist in the film), stayed involved with LaGravenese and brings all of his piano-centric musical sequences to the film version and, again, their emotion and intimacy work.  Just as a good movie musical should, the songs sink in.  Catchy at one moment and then poignant in the next to match the shifting narrative, you get it all.  You'll smile.  You'll blush.  You'll laugh and you'll cry.  The story structure gives you the roller coaster of transitions where no musical number feels the same or repetitive.  They know their limits and serve the plot as effectively as they entertain.  Come and see for yourself.

LESSON #1: WHEN ONE SPOUSE IS MORE SUCCESSFUL THAN THE OTHER-- In the film, our two lovebirds start out at the same level as two struggling artists.  Over time, Jamie's career takes off while Cathy's never catches fire.  Between them, that creates a slow-burning animosity and comparative judgment.  It's not a jealousy or a gender role battle between the labels of breadwinners or sidekicks, but more the personal ominous feelings of riding the other's coattails, unequal success, unequal attention, and uneven creative fulfillment.  For as much as two people can love each other away from their careers, that career success helps the homefront in a relationship.  Some people need that to feel important and equal to their partner.

LESSON #2: HOW YOU CHOOSE TO SPEND YOUR TIME IN A MARRIAGE OR RELATIONSHIP-- With those different career and success arcs from Lesson #1, the battle of quality time also comes into play.  Because steady work is difficult and because she feels like "the girl," Cathy is always there for Jamie's successes.  She takes on that stalwart wife and cheerleader role.  He, however, becomes busy and popular and puts career first too often.  He doesn't reciprocate Cathy's level of support towards her work and acting.  The lesson here is that career goals are fine, but that they can't come before marriage.  You have to put more and better time into that than your job, work, or creative art.

LESSON #3: HOW WE REFLECT ON OUR ROMANTIC RELATIONSHIPS AT DIFFERENT POINTS OF THEIR TENURE-- In this film, five years go by very fast.  We know that same feeling follows us in real life.  When you make it a point to stop and reflect, what do you see?  What do you remember?  How do you remember things happening?  What moments and memories stick with you?  How different were your answers to those questions earlier on in your relationship?  Would your answers match your partner's?  They don't have to, but that notion of reflection, both personal and shared, with your significant other is hugely important, during both good and bad times.  Taking moments like that can help guide and correct you towards new shared experiences or, by contrast, steer you away from repeating past mistakes.

LESSON #4: FAILED RELATIONSHIPS AREN'T A WASTE OF TIME-- Not all relationships work.  Not all marriages work.  We want them to work, but not all of them were meant to be.  That said, that doesn't mean a failed or broken relationship or marriage was a waste time.  Good ending or bad, you grew in character, in love, and in wisdom from the time spent together with that person.  You won't forget the good times as much as you won't forget the scars.  The other person grew too.  You learn about yourself coming out of that shared experience and give yourself a new foundation for your life going forward.  Sure, you can't get those years back, but they weren't wasted if you have that growth in character at the end. 

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