The movie version of the cult favorite Off-Broadway musical The Last Five Years was released in limited theaters and on-demand last Friday. While an ultimately heart-wrenching story of a broken marriage may seem like an odd choice for a Valentine’s Day weekend release, in many ways the movie was one giant valentine/love letter to musical theater fans.
The musical The Last Five Years, written by Jason Robert Brown, premiered Off-Broadway in 2002. The story follows the romance of Cathy, an aspiring actress, and Jamie, a newly successful author, in an unconventional way: Jamie’s story is told chronologically whereas Cathy’s is told backwards, starting with the dissolution of their marriage. In the stage version, the wedding scene in the middle of the show is the only time when the storylines intersect and the two characters directly interact. The movie, which stars Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan, got to explore the material in a whole new way by having Cathy and Jamie in nearly every scene together.
The first thing that surprised me about the movie adaptation was that there was virtually no hand-holding for the audience. After Cathy’s opening number, I wondered if we would get a “five years earlier” onscreen before proceeding with Jamie’s story. We never did, and it was obvious the filmmakers assumed everyone watching was familiar with the structure. In their defense, it was included in every logline I saw for the movie, but I have to wonder if it would come across as initially confusing for anyone not already familiar with the musical. Considering the theatrical release was so limited, it does seem likely that the vast majority of people who will see this indie film will see it because they specifically sought it out as fans of the show. This is the audience Richard LaGravenese, who wrote the screenplay and directed, clearly made the movie for, and as a member of that audience, I enjoyed it immensely and consider it to be one of the most well-done musical adaptations in recent years.
This movie would be nothing without two stellar actor/singers in the lead roles, and Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan did not disappoint. Although I’m still not quite sure how Anna Kendrick essentially became the movie musical queen of her generation in the past couple years, I’m not mad about it. The keys in some of Cathy’s songs were altered slightly to suit her vocal range, but Kendrick sang the part quite capably and made the character endearing and likable even in some of her more self-centered moments. Jeremy Jordan, who has been very successful on Broadway and less so on Smash, was basically the perfect Jamie. He has a phenomenal voice and was able to be both charismatic and snobbish as needed. I was particularly impressed by how much personality he brought to the humorous moments, such as “The Schmuel Song”. The two of them also had outstanding chemistry that made you feel the ups and downs of their relationship even more deeply. Although this is partially due to my strong attachment to the musical version, I felt my heartstrings being tugged during the opening chords of the opening number, “Still Hurting”, before Kendrick even sang a word.
Aside from some minor song and lyric changes, which The Hollywood Reporter outlined splendidly here, the film is overall incredibly faithful to its source material. The biggest change, in my opinion (spoilers to follow), relates to Jamie’s adultery. In the musical, he cheats on Cathy with one woman, the same one he eventually leaves her for. In the movie, we see him cheat on her with a string of 3 women- and those are just the ones we explicitly see! I would love to know the reasoning behind this change, as it definitely hurts Jamie’s already poor credibility. While I do think the scales tip a bit in Cathy’s favor in the musical also, it is not as dramatic as in the movie, where I feel Cathy comes across as barely at fault at all. In the musical you can see much more clearly the shortcomings of both characters. While Cathy doesn’t cheat, she is often selfish and resents Jamie for succeeding in his career while hers continues to stall. I think it is Ms. Kendrick’s endearing portrayal that made movie Cathy more likable to me. Even in moments where she is refusing to attend another one of Jamie’s work parties or trying to convince herself that she is crucial to his success, her actions come across as less selfish and more understandable and reasonable. And while Jamie’s actions towards the end of the story are unforgivable, you do see for a long time in the beginning exactly what Cathy, or any woman, would see in him. He’s supportive, talented, charismatic, attractive, seemingly the whole package. Their relationship, though ill-fated, is realistic. It is not romanticized. Minus the frequent musical numbers, it is many people’s story.
The movie is also jam-packed with fun cameos that are a treat for the theater-loving audience for which the movie was made. Jason Robert Brown has a cheeky moment as the audition pianist Cathy is convinced hates her. Jordan’s real-life wife, Broadway actress Ashley Spencer, in a bit of irony, is one of the women he cheats with. Sherie Renee Scott and Betsy Wolfe, who played Cathy in the 2002 and 2013 Off-Broadway productions, respectively, both appear as well. As a theater lover whose iTunes play count for this cast recording is embarrassingly high, I could not have asked for more.
For more information on how you can see the movie, visit http://lastfiveyearsmovie.com/.