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Review: 'The Last Five Years' is a bizarrely not too depressing break-up musical

A longtime cult favorite show gets a movie that flattens it out. But great Anna Kendrick, obvs.
The Last Five Years

Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan play marrieds whose dying relationship is chroniclRADiUS-TWC

‘The Last Five Years’
Director:
Richard LaGravenese
Stars: Anna Kendrick, Jeremy Jordan
Rating: PG-13
2 (out of 5) Globes

As with any blob of concept-heavy theater, there’s a lot a filmmaker can do with “The Last Five Years,” Jason Robert Brown’s long-liked downer musical. The hook is that it looks at a busted-up marriage from both sides but at different trajectories: passing the baton every song, Cathy (Anna Kendrick) goes backwards, a la Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal,” and Jamie (Jeremy Jordan) moves chronologically. One could make each side of the story visually distinctive from one another. One could visually vary each song — a diverse lot that touches on jazz, klezmer, Latin and more, on top of power ballads. One could even simply adopt a larger-than-life approach a la the king of the downer musical, Jacques Demy (“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”). The sky’s the limit.

And yet director Richard LaGravanese — the Renaissance Man filmmaker who’s had his mitts in everything from “The Bridges of Madison County” to “The Ref” — does just shy of nothing. It’s a uniformly filmed and staged production, one that appeals more to the head than the senses, in a context that needs to appeal to both or at least the latter. LaGravenese is going for a semi-naturalistic, only slightly heightened take on material that’s already diverse — not just jumping between time lines but mixing musical genres. It’s a fit of counter-productivity that works in theory yet only sometimes in practice, flattening out a source that should be a lot more depressing, given it opens with Cathy sitting in the dark, lamenting her marriage’s end.

Supplying life is left to the performers, one of whom, thankfully, is Anna Kendrick. This is…almost the musical she deserves, at least moreso than “Into the Woods” — one that plays to her keyed-up yet neurotic personality. While Jamie finds overnight success with a novel — the show was first staged in 2001, when this seemed more likely — Cathy flails about in low-rent musical theater, both jealous of her husband’s success and increasingly ignored by his lack of availability. Kendrick is best when her innate pluck is being knocked down a few pegs; she’s not your typical pepped-up theater kid, like the Anne Hathaway of the Oscars, but someone who naturally wears a permanently blindsided expression that says she expected more but didn’t get it.

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Even on the page, Cathy is more interesting than Jamie, who goes through the more familiar motions of achieving fame in youth, only to ignore What Really Matters. He’s the less likable of “The Last Five Years”’ couple, but he’s not less likable in particularly novel ways, and Jordan’s performance is caddish and narrow-minded without being particularly lived-in. He’s a broad type played broadly, whereas Cathy is a type who, thanks to Kendrick, at least gives off the illusion of being fleshed-out. In fact, it’s not really LaGravenese’s fault his film adaptation mostly sits there on screen. The source itself is more a great idea for a musical than a great musical, with songs that aim for variety but mostly sound the same — and sound similar to any number of other musicals. The lyrics are honest but rarely draw blood. Everything about it sounds and seems right on yet…just…isn’t. The saddest thing in the movie is that it isn't better.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
 
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