I love musical theater. I find myself breaking into tunes from golden-age Broadway musicals — and contemporary ones like Rent — too often, perhaps, for the earbuds of those nearest to me. I also genuinely enjoy musical romances on film. Once is one of my favorite films of all time. I unabashedly loved Meryl Streep in Mamma Mia!
All this is simply a prelude to establish myself as part of the prime target audience for the new film, The Last Five Years. The film is adapted from Jason Robert Brown’s beloved musical about the buildup and breakdown of a relationship, told in a chiasmus, crisscrossing style so you see both stories happening at once.
Unfortunately, not even my innermost theater geek responded well to the film. I found myself physically cringing at times, and if I hadn’t been reviewing it, I might have walked out early on. By way of comparison, at no point did I want to walk out of Fifty Shades of Grey, even though it bored me, too. While I’m glad I stuck it out because The Last Five Years did improve significantly, it wasn’t enough to win me over. And boy did the two actors try.
Now, if you loved the play, and you love the music, you already know that this review isn’t for you. I will acknowledge this: I’m sure the film will please the cult audience, and fans of Anna Kendrick, playing Cathy, will relish seeing their leading lady hit her high notes and emote effectively while doing so. And to be fully fair, I’m not entirely sure that the songs I found cloying on the big screen would be equally rough on the ears in a nice theater, in the warmth of live performance with real actors standing mere feet away from us, baring their intimate struggles.
But the gorgeous, well-dressed actors singing their pain and passion on the screen left me cold. Maybe my sour taste began early because one of the first few songs, “Shiksa Goddess” featured the male lead, Jamie (played gamely by Jeremy Jordan), singing, in a rather unpleasant melody, a reverse homage, a happy kiss-off to the Rebeccas and Rachels and Julies from Hebrew school that he once dated. (My name is Sarah, and yes, I went to Hebrew school.) He sings this in the middle of sex with his new Christian girlfriend. Yay for him?
As his songs move forward from this triumphant conquest through more victories (he’s an awesome and lauded young novelist) to boredom and ultimate dissatisfaction with the marriage, her solo numbers move backwards from despair that he’s finally left her through worries that there’s trouble in paradise, back through her own early euphoria as they fall in love. They meet halfway for a duet that’s a proposal scene, “The Next Ten Minutes,” one of the better songs on offer. Discerning viewers will be excited to dig up clues — jewelry, wedding rings, furniture — that explain exactly where each scene is, chronologically, but it’s not necessary to follow that closely.
Knowing that the play was a roman à clef about its writer added to my discontent, since Jamie encounters nothing but success and women throw themselves at him, while Cathy struggles and refuses to put herself “out there” for parts in her pursuit of acting fame. There is one very amiable humor scene in which Cathy sings over Skype about the woes of Ohio summer stock theater that shows off Kendrick’s comic chops and charm, but it makes it hard to swallow her character as such a lame loser. At least Cathy’s final song, “Goodbye Until Tomorrow” is undeniably good, and I almost started feeling interested as its notes sounded out from the screen, just before the credits.
The Last Five Years is out today in theaters as well as on streaming services.