Monday, February 16, 2015

Doomed From The Start (The Relationship, Not The Movie): The Last Five Years!

The Good: Good music, Good performances (especially from Anna Kendrick), Interesting narrative technique
The Bad: Characters/relationship
The Basics: On the balance, The Last Five Years is a movie worth watching . . . even if the relationship it explores is not worth it at all!

Anna Kendrick is having a good first quarter of 2015 (she had a pretty good last quarter of 2014 with Into The Woods as well!): the art house films she performed in in 2014 seem to all be hitting theaters now. Following right on the heels of The Voices hitting the big screen, the musical The Last Five Years has finally been released from its dungeon. And it is good.

The Last Five Years follows unfortunately close to Comet (reviewed here!), which was a brilliant presentation of a tumultuous relationship that hit independent cinema late last year (and made my Best of 2014 Move List, here!) and has a similarly rocky relationship that it contains. The Last Five Years is based upon the stage play by the same name and director Richard LaGravenese does a generally decent job adapting it (more on that in a moment!). It behooves me to note that I have not seen the play, so this is just a pure review of the film as it stands on its own.

The plot of The Last Five Years is painfully simple: Cathy is at the end of her romantic relationship with Jamie and is reflecting upon it. Jamie is a novelist in his early twenties who is experiencing a meteoric rise. His novel has gotten the attention of an agent, who has an in at Random House. All of a sudden, Jamie is at Columbia, his first chapter is getting in Atlantic Monthly and he’s on the way to having an amazing best seller.

That’s the death knell of The Last Five Years. Cathy is looking back on the relationship and Jamie is experiencing it chronological order, but his sections are not actually about the romantic relationship. Instead, Jamie hops into bed with Cathy, in defiance of the wishes of all his Jewish ancestors, and seems to only really be taken with her beauty and the novelty of being with a non-Jew. Jamie accepts his otherwise offensive song (it’s basically, “I’ve slept with every Jewish girl thrown at me, but wow, it’ll really piss off my parents if I fuck you and they find out, so that interests me!”) and wants to have a real relationship with him. There are a few moments where it seems like it would be easy to see Cathy’s perspective – Jamie dedicates his book to her, he’s a good looking guy, his success does change their lives. But, from the very beginning, it is impossible to actually believe in the Jamie/Cathy relationship (not just because the film opens with Cathy singing the broken-up song). Jamie does not have a grounded, real, interest in Cathy (her beauty will fade, her non-Jewishness isn’t really enough of a foundation to build a relationship with her, etc.), so the relationship truly is doomed from the start.

That leaves “the journey.” “The journey” in The Last Five Years is hardly pleasant to watch; Cathy might be blind to how Jamie is catting around on her and how he is not actually attentive to her needs (she wants to come home and crash after a day of bad auditions and he just wants to keep her awake and focused sharing his latest story with her), but the audience is not. Anna Kendrick (Cathy) and Jeremy Jordan (Jamie) have little in the way of on-screen chemistry, which only accents how far apart they are from the beginning. “The Journey” is not much of a journey and it feels entirely forced with the players involved.

That said, the music in The Last Five Years pretty damn good. The opening song is appropriately heartbreaking and there are one or two other numbers that are good. The singing by Jordan and Kendrick is well-executed.

What gets The Last Five Years even a mild recommendation from me is the performance by Anna Kendrick. LaGravenese might well be the first director not obsessed with showing Anna Kendrick’s teeth. He captures her smiling, without showing off her teeth; he gets her to look around and emote with her mouth closed and that is something no other director has done all that well or consistently. On her own Anna Kendrick is actually wonderful in the role of Cathy. She opens The Last Five Years with a powerful performance, singing in the opening scene with absolute heartbreak growing in her eyes. In that scene, Kendrick is not struggling to remember lines or hit notes, Cathy is singing her heart out, alone and broken and it instantly sucks the viewer in. She’s fantastic.

Unfortunately, Richard LaGravenese’s direction is nowhere near as consistent. In the opening scene, LaGravenese is sure to get Anna Kendrick’s eyes as they express all the emotion that would come with tears welling up (no actual tears are evident, but the heartbreak and emotion behind them are clearly expressed). But in the subsequent Cathy scene, where Cathy is trying desperately to reunite with Jamie and he is already gone (more than he was already), Cathy makes a reference to seeing her crying. Unfortunately, LaGravenese has the camera so far back that the viewer can’t see Cathy crying. Things like that and dance numbers that use a smaller cast rotating around (as opposed to an actual bustling crowd) made The Last Five Years feel more like a play than a film. LaGravenese does great using costume changes and location changes in ways that a theater company could not possibly pull off in the space of a theater, but the movie still does not have the scope of a film. He even focuses on Cathy and Jamie's hands holding one another as they walk to make his point clear. LaGravenese does not use the film medium as well as he ought to capture nuance consistently. Instead, sometimes one feels like they are watching a well-crafted film with emotions beautifully focused upon and others, it looks like a play where we’re in the fiftieth row.

The result is a musical that is inconsistent, but not bad, detailing a relationship that is not songworthy at all.

For other films currently in theaters, please check out my reviews of:
To Write Love On Her Arms
The Voices
Love, Rosie
The Seventh Son
Song One
American Sniper
Project Almanac


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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