There are not many Valentine’s Day movies that begin with a breakup, but that is only one of the ways “The Last Five Years” distinguishes itself from the goopy, forced love stories that are spewed out every Feb. 14. The movie is a breathtaking combination of charming and heartbreaking as it follows the five-year relationship of a young couple through song, demonstrating what musical theater-made-film ought to be.
Following the arc of a five-year relationship between struggling actress Cathy Hiatt (Anna Kendrick) and novelist Jamie Wellerstein (Jeremy Jordan), the movie is unapologetically real. The plot of the movie is driven by two opposing timelines: Cathy looks back on the relationship from their breakup to their first date, and Jamie looks back in chronological order from first date to breakup. This setup shows the full spectrum of a relationship — from the honeymoon phase to struggles to marriage and beyond. “The Last Five Years” does not sugarcoat love as always blissful and idyllic; it deconstructs the romance, shows us its twists and turns and gives credit to the work and pain that goes into any real relationship. Most importantly, it shows both Cathy’s and Jamie’s perspectives. It does not pin the blame on anyone or anything, but reminds viewers that sometimes, things just don’t work out.
Kendrick and Jordan have incredible chemistry, and while Jordan is the better singer of the two, their vocals are extremely complementary. The experience Jordan gained from his lead roles in Broadway musicals like “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Newsies” help him confidently make the character of Jamie his own. Jordan balances Jamie’s ego and career success with a boyish grin and genuineness that makes him likeable despite his faults.
Kendrick’s extensive film experience shows in her ability to captivate the viewer in the simplest of shots. Though Cathy feels left behind in Jamie’s success and is frustrated with her career, Kendrick is still able to evoke empathy rather than disdain for Cathy’s jealousy. Between this and her commendable performance as Cinderella in December’s “Into the Woods,” Anna Kendrick has firmly established herself as a vocal force.
Musically, the movie is opera-style, akin to “Rent,” and encompasses multiple genres including pop, rock, Latin and jazz. The opposing timelines force a majority of solo songs, which indicate whose narrative is being portrayed. The only musical intersection between the characters, which shows the unity of the characters’ beliefs and mindsets, happens briefly when the couple is engaged and married.
Jason Robert Brown wrote “The Last Five Years” based on his failed marriage. The show premiered at Chicago’s Northlight Theatre in 2001, was produced off-Broadway in 2002 and was revived off-Broadway in 2013. His ex-wife threatened legal action against the show if he portrayed their relationship too closely, causing him to rewrite one of his original songs. Brown’s emotions were raw and came across as such in the movie. Brown, as well as Betsey Wolfe and Sherie Rene Scott, who had both portrayed Cathy, have cameos in the film, showing the musical theater seal of approval given to the film.
The stage version of “The Last Five Years” only has two cast members, Jamie and Cathy, and is performed on a rather bare stage. The stark setup emphasizes the skill of the actors and the excellent music. Because of the visual demands of a film compared to those of a show, there are a number of rough transitions in moving “The Last Five Years” from the stage to the screen. Although it is made clear which character is the primary vocalist, it is sometimes difficult to keep the timelines separate, requiring careful viewing. The movie provides very obvious visual cues in location jumps by using landscape shots and iconic buildings to show movement.
The addition of dramatic sets and extras takes some of the original charm and simplicity away from the film version. For example, in one very jarring and unnatural scene, Jamie walks in time to the music in what seems to be a very half-hearted choreography.
The main downside of the film is that it did not have the luxury of a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster. It has a lamentable amount of public awareness, and despite Kendrick’s star power, the movie experiences the same setbacks as a typical low-budget indie musical. The upside is that the film maintains the intimate feel of the musical. How to best produce a stage-to-screen musical is still being worked out, but compared to other stage-to-screen adaptions, “The Last Five Years” feels authentic, as a musical should.
It is easy to look at the stories of perfect romance that are so pushed in our society and expect them to be reality. “The Last Five Years” challenges viewers to not overlook the lessons that can be gained from failure. When Jamie says, “Goodbye” and Cathy replies, “Goodbye until tomorrow” at the end of the movie, the prevailing feeling is a strange mixture of sadness at what is over and hope at what is only beginning. Perhaps the most meaningful lesson to be learned from the film is this: just because a relationship ended doesn’t make it unimportant.