Cathy Hiatt (Anna Kendrick) and Jamie Wellerstein (Jeremy Jordan) met five years ago and quickly fell head over heels. They moved in together, they got married, and they tried to support each other through the ups and downs, ebbs and flows of their lives and career paths. Now, alas, it is over, and while mistakes were made on both ends, there is little they could have done differently to salvage what was not meant to be. An irresistible cinematic adaptation of Jason Robert Brown's exceptional 2002 Off-Broadway musical, "The Last Five Years" deconstructs the intricacies of romantic relationships in a way that is creative, breathtaking and vital. It is clear from the opening song (Cathy's wistful ballad "Still Hurting") that the couple have decided to part ways, just as it is also obvious from the second (Jamie's punch-drunk "Shiksa Goddess") that their time together began in hope and idealism. This back-and-forth duet continues for the duration, with Jamie's scenes marking the sequential path of their relationship from his point of view, and Cathy's scenes traveling in reverse order from her perspective. The two of them ultimately crisscross for Jamie's marriage proposal, and what occurs on both sides of this momentous event paints a moving, seamlessly melodic portrait of two people who, for a fleeting handful of years, were better for having known and loved each other.
Broadway-veterans-turned-film-actors Anna Kendrick (2014's "Into the Woods
") and Jeremy Jordan (2012's "Joyful Noise
") are a faultless match as Cathy and Jamie, their dreamy chemistry so dynamic that it makes their highs feel rhapsodic and special and their lows sting like a slap to the soul. When they meet, Jamie is an aspiring writer and Cathy has dreams of hitting it big as an actress. The disparity of where their careers take them isn't a problem at first--she is happy for him when he earns a book deal and publishes his first work, and he vows to support her even as she strikes out at New York auditions and finds herself at summer stock in Ohio--but then, sadly, resentments, temptations and a communicative disconnect bleed into the equation.
Were "The Last Five Years" unspooled chronologically, it would still hold resonance due to the strength of the music, performances and Richard LaGravenese's (2011's "Water for Elephants
") intimate direction, but its path would remain readily familiar and progressively downbeat. By uniquely structuring the story so that it starts at the beginning from Jamie's outlook and the end from Cathy's, the story is constantly revitalizing itself, each song revealing personal insights into their hopes, beliefs, fears and disappointments. The sense of bittersweet loss when a relationship comes to a close is felt here with quiet, aching truthfulness, while the levity and passion of two people getting to know each other and falling in love are equally captured with genuine, soaring spontaneity. All of the moments, large and small, in between are just as enduring, bringing color and depth to the picture's love story.
If Anna Kendrick could star in every movie musical from here until the end of time, the genre would be better for it. Kendrick's voice is heavenly, matching her skill as an actor with her range, emotional power and vulnerability. When she combines these two talents, as she does with Cathy, she becomes an unstoppable double-threat with a distinct gift for finding the piercing honesty in her every moment on screen. Jeremy Jordan is perfectly cast as Jamie, innately likable enough to withstand his indiscretions and the tough choices he makes. Jordan's vocals are superb, but his ability to remain sympathetic even as Jamie's actions prove frustrating and destructive is his most impressive feat. Together or apart, Kendrick and Jordan feel like a real couple and authentic people, navigating their young adulthood and learning very quickly that with success comes failure. How Cathy and Jamie imagine their futures doesn't quite match up with their reality, but their realization of this and the growth that occurs within them as they mature over the five-year timespan reverberates with thoughtful, messy accuracy.
Jason Robert Brown's songs are stars on their own, each one a catchy, touching, sometimes droll triumph of music and lyrics. Story opener "Still Hurting" is lovely and sad in equal measure, as is Cathy's second number, "See I'm Smiling," where Jamie's visit to see his wife in Ohio for her birthday doesn't go exactly as planned. Jamie's "Moving Too Fast," as his success skyrockets and Cathy's career reaches its umpteenth road block, marvelously blends the up-tempo thrill of achievement with the first foreboding signs that changes are happening too quickly. "A Summer in Ohio" is a comic standout as Cathy tries to make the best of an awkward situation in a theatre troupe filled with, shall we say, quirky co-stars. Another highlight comes in the early, most carefree days of their courtship with Cathy's forthright, confident "I Can Do Better Than That," a steadfast plea for freedom and independence from the small town where she grew up. Arriving full circle as a bookend to "Still Hurting," closing number "Goodbye Until Tomorrow" finds newfound hope and contemplative acceptance in the closing of a crucial stage in both their lives.
For a motion picture born from the theatre where there are few speaking parts outside of its two leads, "The Last Five Years" expands its breadth and sweep while staying faithful to Brown's quixotic source material, its locations in New York and Ohio proving to be invaluable backdrops. There is not so much as a sliver of staginess or claustrophobia in LaGravenese's telling, while every last cent of the modest budget has been put in front of the camera. Backed by Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan's electrifying, star-quality turns, the film finds a universal common ground in its look at the unpredictability of life and the special bonds and great loves that inform the persons we become. Small in size yet vast in profundity, "The Last Five Years" is a sincere, understated miracle of a musical.