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‘Last Five Years’: Breezy musical

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REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER/For Digital First Media

“The Last Five Years” is a cinematic adaptation of the off-Broadway, pop rock musical of the same name. This largely autobiographical work by Jason Robert Brown was inspired by his relationship with the actress, Theresa O’Neill. It spans the half decade from their meeting, though their marriage, to its acrimonious demise. To avert litigation, threatened by his erstwhile spouse, Brown made revisions in the original draft of the play.

“The Last Five Years” made its stage debut in Chicago’s Northlight Theatre back in 2001. The following year, it was mounted off-Broadway. Since then, it has enjoyed many productions throughout Europe, Australia, the Philippines, and Singapore.

As with the play, the story is told through a series of expositional tunes, with only scant spoken dialogue. The film mirrors the play’s unusual format. It alternates between tunes sung by the male novelist character, Jamie Wellerstein (Jeremy Jordan), and the female actress character, Cathy Hiatt (Anna Kendrick). While Jamie’s songs are performed in chronological order, Cathy’s proceed in reverse sequence. Midway through the film, the couple share a song together at their wedding.

The film starts off with Cathy bemoaning the end of her marriage with “Still Hurting.” It then flips to Jamie, who is exhilarated to have just met Cathy. The tune, “Shiksa Goddess,” captures one of the central themes. Jamie is dating his first non-Jewish woman.

Jamie and Cathy are each pursuing success in professions, which are beset by impediments. The contrasting career trajectories of the two protagonists constitute another salient theme. Jamie becomes a published novelist at the tender age of 24. Meanwhile, Cathy remains a struggling actress, who can’t seem to get past summer stock. How will their disparate fortunes impact the marital relationship? Will it trigger infidelity?

Both the stage and the screen versions manifest a distinct bias in favor of the male character. The wife is depicted as neurotic, bitter, and unreasonable. Despite his philandering, the husband is presented as being decidedly more sympathetic. This should come as no surprise. After all, “The Last Five Years” represents Jason Robert Brown’s perspective on his failed marriage.

Was Anna Kendrick born in the wrong era? The performer’s trained soprano voice is certainly her forte. Unfortunately for Kendrick, Hollywood movie musicals have fallen into disfavor. Kendrick displayed her singing chops to advantage in “Pitch Perfect” about a competition between rival a cappella groups. The film generated a novelty tune for Kendrick, “Cups (When I’m Gone).” It climbed to the number 2 spot on the adult pop chart in “Billboard.” More recently, she essayed Cinderella in the adaptation of Steven Sondheim’s, “Into the Woods.” It was in a non-singing role as

A screen capture from a trailer to the film "The Last Five Years" at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HmcDMiWIE6A

A screen capture from a trailer to the film “The Last Five Years” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HmcDMiWIE6A

’s assistant in “Up in the Air,” that Kendrick was named Best Supporting Actress by the National Board of Review. For the part, she also garnered nominations from the Academy Awards, BAFTA. the Golden Globes, and the Screen Actors Guild.

Jeremy Jordan is best known for Broadway’s “Newsies,” American Repertory Theater’s “Finding Neverland,” and TV’s short-lived “Smash.” He has only one prior screen credit, “Joyful Noise.” In that dramedy, Jordan supported Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah as two women struggling for control of a Gospel choir. In “The Last Five Years,” Jordan provides a good vocal complement to Kendrick and is a pleasant screen presence.

This is the third feature directed by Richard LaGravense, a graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. He has been the screenwriter of numerous celebrated films, which were helmed by more acclaimed directors. This includes “The Fisher King” (helmed by Terry Gilliam), “The Bridges of Madison County” (helmed by Clint Eastwood,” “Beloved” (helmed by Jonathan Demme), and the cable movie, “Behind the Candelabra” (helmed by Steven Soderbergh). Here, LaGravense does double duty, both adapting the stage play and directing the film. He does an effective job of opening up a theatrical vehicle and making it less static than its stage antecedent.

“The Last Five Years” is a breezy musical. It boasts an enjoyable assemblage of tunes, effectively performed by its appealing leads.

*** PG-13 (for sexual material, brief strong language, a drug image) 94 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year.  He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.

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