Telling the story of a failed marriage, The Last Five Years is a musical two-hander. It’s sung through, trading perspectives between spouses with each new number. This gives it a good sense of balance, starting with Cathy (Anna Kendrick) lamenting the end of a relationship, before launching into a back-and-forth chronology that shows us Jamie (Jeremy Jordan) at the beginning of their time together. Then it keeps switching as their overlapping timelines cross in the middle and then leave them on opposite sides once again. Yanking us between the good times and the bad, it attempts to dissect what went wrong, juxtaposing happy rushes of love, domesticity, and success with frustrations, arguments, and difficulties. Adapted by writer-director Richard LaGravenese from Jason Robert Brown’s Off-Broadway play, the results are small, cramped, low-budget intimacy decorated with cutesy theatrical flourishes. I found it mostly irritating.
But if you have to spend 90 musical minutes with a couple, it may as well be Kendrick and Jordan. Both accomplished Broadway performers, they’re terrific singers who know how to modulate their performances for film. They’re big and tuneful, but carry the light touch of film acting, knowing when a small shift of eyes will sell a feeling just as well as projecting to the back row. I can only imagine how unendurable the film would be without them. As it is, the plotting lets the audience in on the futility of the relationship immediately, emphasizing the disjunction that was always there, which makes the entire experience one of watching charming Kendrick stuck in a doomed marriage that never seems worth it. Sure, they had love, but we can read the early warning signs she muddles past. Such ironies are meant to be insightful, but I couldn’t take satisfaction reading hindsight.
There are fleeting minutes of enjoyment, a few hummable bars here and there, but it’s a blur of melody that started sounding awfully samey to me. It’s monotonous musically and emotionally, especially once you get the hang of its flip-flopping chronology. The couple’s moments of happiness – he signs a book deal, she works at a summer theater, they get married and move in together – are sickly sweet. Their arguments are bickering that’s supposed to be real and raw, but are instead just vague specificities, Mad Lib style conflict. Kendrick plays blushing excitement and exhausted frustration well, and Jordan, to his credit, leans into his character’s insufferable clichés, like a wandering eye, and a big ego brought about by early success. (Is the line “He’s like a young Jonathan Franzen!” foreshadowing?)
But their enervating disagreements are just as hard to sit through as their lovey-dovey syrupy good times. LaGravenese films their numbers with the usual American-indie faux casual looseness, but layers in some theatrical conceits – backup dancers, breakaway walls, dramatic lighting – to emphasize important moments. It’s fine, but never rings true. The film made a break straight for my last nerve and scraped away for the duration. I found it irritating, not just for how little it worked on me, but also for how much I wanted to like it – we don’t get too many musicals these days.