Jamie is over and where can I turn?
Covered with scars I did nothing to earn.
Maybe there’s somewhere a lesson to learn…
But that wouldn’t change the fact,
That wouldn’t speed the time.
– “Still Hurting,” The Last Five Years
“The Last Five Years” opens on a blue-gray New York City, a dark apartment where Cathy (Anna Kendrick) reads a letter from her husband, Jamie (Jeremy Jordan), her face falling as the music crescendos. She launches into “Still Hurting,” a song she half-sings, half-cries as she wanders around her empty apartment. The camera lovingly passes old framed photos of Cathy and Jamie, moments from their life together: their wedding, the sunny day they moved in together, other snapshots of a shared space. And when Cathy completes her song, the movie jumps to a sunny new apartment, a lovesick Jamie singing to a much younger, much happier Cathy about how he’s so lucky to have found her. This is “The Last Five Years,” an adaptation on the 2002 musical written and composed by Jason Robert Brown, that tells the story of a relationship backwards and forwards, intercutting the joyous past with the tragic future.
“The Last Five Years,” is an intimate look at love blossoming and fading, that plays with time and perspective. Cathy’s story starts at the end, and traces back to their first night together. Conversely, Jamie’s story starts right at the beginning, and lunges forward to their inevitable breakup. Cathy has dreams of becoming an actress, and struggles to find success in that career, her self-doubt on full display. She accepts a recurring job at a summer reparatory theater in Ohio, but is deeply unhappy with her lack of meaningful roles. Jamie, on the other hand, finds instant success with his career as a novelist. His first book is plucked out of obscurity and published with almost none of the rejection Cathy experiences, and he relishes in the fame and notoriety his book brings him.
“The Last Five Years” follows Jamie and Cathy through the highs and lows of their careers and their marriages. There are petty arguments on both sides, loving gestures of support and faithfulness and then a crack in their foundation, one that starts the slow crumbling of their marriage. It’s small-scale emotions told on a big Broadway tapestry; one thing the movie provides that the stage production can’t is vibrant scenery, the camera using quick cuts to keep the songs moving: around the city, around Cathy and Jamie’s apartment, around the parties and people that crowd their life together. None of the songs or the scenery would work, though, without Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan as Cathy and Jamie.
Cathy is the emotional center of “The Last Five Years,” and Anna Kendrick plays her with an open vulnerability, every feeling plain on her face. There’s a quiet question under so many of Cathy’s songs, her eyes pleading “Am I good enough yet?” to Jamie and casting directors alike, and Kendrick captures it all. I don’t know how much of Cathy Kendrick can relate to, but the role fits her perfectly: every song, including the hilarious, brassy “A Summer In Ohio,” shows off her vocal range. I’ve loved Kendrick since “Up in the Air,” but this little musical, in-between all her bigger profiled roles, is the best she’s ever been.
While “The Last Five Years” is three million times better a showcase for Jeremy Jordan than “Smash” was, Jamie is not as dynamic a character as Cathy. Jordan gets to be silly, angry, joyous and serious, his big Broadway voice swallowing up the high notes in his stand-out songs “Moving Too Fast” and “Nobody Needs To Know,” but Jamie is hard to like. Fame without struggle does reckless things to his ego, changing the earnest 23 year-old who sang about his devotion to Cathy into a guy that calls a woman “a pair of breasts.” (Not a huge fan of “A Miracle Would Happen” as a song, although it has its moments)
Jordan and Kendrick are equally well-matched, though, fully present in their roles even when they’re not speaking or singing. There’s a comfortable intimacy between them as actors, and their facial expressions and chemistry add a lot to already spectacular songs by Jason Robert Brown. “The Last Five Years” is a special movie-musical that pays tribute to the source material while expanding it for film. It has music that’s earworm-ready, funny and strong and sad. It’s one heartbreaking, raw look at a relationship through the years, one that I’m still thinking about days after I watched it.
“50 Shades of Gray,” whatever. “The Last Five Years” is all I needed for Valentine’s Day.
“The Last Five Years” is currently playing in select cities, and available on VOD platforms, iTunes and Amazon Prime.