The Last Five Years

I spent about eleven years listening to the first off-Broadway, Sherie Rene Scott–Norbert Leo Butz recording of Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years before seeing it on stage in 2013. I love the music and wasn't sure what to expect when seeing it live. Turns out, I was blown away by the chamber musical's power, and the performances of Betsy Wolfe and Adam Kantor. My love for the musical only grew, and I now listen to that off-Broadway recording on a regular basis. (That production, by the way, was directed by Brown.) And so it was with cautious optimism that I approached the film adaptation, directed by Richard LaGravenese and starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan. I didn't love it.

What makes The Last Five Years work so well on stage is what keeps it from really taking off on screen. As Brown explained during the recent off-Broadway run, this show is about two people who can never seem to be in the same place at the same time. Thus, they never interact on stage together, except during "The Next Ten Minutes" and for a brief moment at the end of the show. That's not the case on screen, as you might expect, and so the whole film misses the point.

It also provides a directorial bias. It provides more opportunities for Cathy to stare at Jamie, and LaGravanese has directed the talented Anna Kendrick (Into the Woods), a Tony and Oscar nominee, to constantly be looking at Jamie longingly. We never see Jamie looking at Cathy that way. We never see Jamie look like he's in love with Cathy, only in lust. I've never felt a bias one way or the other, yet I can’t help but detect a bias in favor of Jamie in this version. Take, for example, the location of the final moments. Cathy is physically going out of her way to be where Jamie is. I suppose you could argue that that is a bias toward Cathy, trying to make her more sympathetic, but all it does it make her look more pathetic, while Jamie looks like a guy who got caught up with a stage four clinger.

LaGravenese's direction doesn't hold up elsewhere, either. The camera is shaky for one scene and steady for the next, with no apparent rhyme or reason. The framing is odd, with questionable angles that obscure the view. The only defense of such choices I can conjure is that it is LaGravenese's way of saying we never see exactly what’s happening; that this is a memory play, and our memories are always obscured. I found it distracting. I also didn't like the way the beginning of their relationship (as depicted in "Shiksa Goddess" and "Goodbye Until Tomorrow") had a manic sensibility to it. I didn't see two people passionately in love; I saw two teenagers who couldn't stop groping each other. That's not what I'm supposed to see.

Yet another problem is the timing—it's set in present day. Brown was adamant about keeping his 2013 production set in the time in which it was written—before the ubiquity of cell phones and constant communication connectivity. Doing so presents communication challenges that have a significant impact on a relationship. Setting the film in present day removes those challenges, and it is disingenuous to suggest that in such drastically different circumstances we end up with the same outcome.

Moreover, certain details that were changed, or details about which I made assumptions that were confounded by the film, mark significant changes in the characters and what might have happened in the relationship. Some visual interpolations, in fact, muck up the space-time continuum, leaving viewers who have not obsessed over the show confused as to "when" we are.

This might not be fair. I admit that it is difficult for me to “review” this as a stand alone movie. People who’ve never seen it on stage or who have never even listened to it might have a totally different take. Some moments were, in fact, charming. I'm not a Jeremy Jordan (Newsies, Smash) fan, but "The Schmuel Song" was good—it showed a couple in their more intimate moments, showing the kinds of things you do to make your partner laugh. The end of “Part of That” is effective, showing Cathy finally truly realizing things are heading downward.

Regardless, there are enough oddities in the film, production choices, to keep me from enjoying this. For example, many of Cathy’s costumes are highly stylized—anachronistic period costumes that don’t seem to have a rhyme or reason, and aren’t carried through as Cathy goes through the five years. Jamie’s style evolution makes sense, but while Cathy gets more sophisticated, it’s a mystery why she had such a late 50s/early 60s vibe going in the first place, what with the head scarves and pedal pushers. Another false step is the lingering establishing shots of buildings. This musical isn't about buildings, it's about building a relationship. What's more is that the "happy" moments are over saturated. The new arrangements are over orchestrated. The whole film is over directed. I’m over it.