Sunday, February 22, 2015

FILM: The Last Five Years

I had never heard of the unjustly short-lived Broadway musical "The Last Five Years" until my godson did a phenomenal number from it for a high school cabaret. I was intrigued by the concept. It tells the story of young lovers in an ultimately failed marriage, with him singing scenes of their relationship from first excited date to ultimate parting, and her singing her viewpoint backwards, starting from the split and working back. (Since the story opens with the end of the relationship, that's not a spoiler.) Having seen playwright Jason Robert Brown's other major work, Parade, and been impressed with that, I've long been eager to see The Last Five Years someday. Thus, when I saw it had been done as a film with Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan, we rushed out to see it. Happily, it lived up to all my great expectations. Kendrick is "pitch perfect" as Cathy, struggling to assert herself while not being exactly sure what she wants, singing sweetly and powerfully at the same time. And Jordan (recent Broadway star of "Newsies") brings an equally powerful voice to make a compelling Jamie. It's easy to join Cathy in getting swept up in his exuberance. His exuberance is only fueled when his career as an author rises meteorically. Her plunge into acting doesn't meet with anything like his success, drawing the lines for their fatal rift. The film keeps faith with the structure of the play, as a series of alternating solos, although both actors are present in every number (unlike the play) even if only one is singing. This creates an emphasized subjectivity which really brings out her conflicted pride and loneliness at his book readings and parties, and his frustration with her unvoiced hesitance to enjoy his success. Streets and scenes of New York City provide just the right backdrop, and it is realized in a way that the visuals provide lovely settings, while letting the songs speak for themselves. (Which is perfect, as Jason Robert Brown's lyrics are clever and incisive, in Sondheim territory.) I think the conceit of the forward and backward story-telling works wonderfully, as a relationship is something that you live forward and reflect on backward, especially in those moments like Cathy's opening number, stunned and wondering what happened, where exactly it went wrong. The two really only sing together when they cross in the middle when they marry. The way he winds it up in the end is brilliantly conceived and beautifully realized in film. Given that the play is said to be rather closely autobiographical for Brown, it is surprisingly even-handed. Both characters are sympathetic, and the audience is not lead to take sides or fed an entirely pat answer for the ultimate failure. Rather, like the characters, we are left to look back and search vainly for where exactly things went wrong for the beautiful couple that we were all rooting for.

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