Something becomes abundantly clear after the opening number of The Last Five Years, Richard LaGravenese’s big screen adaptation of the Jason Robert Brown musical: Anna Kendrick is a marvel. The pixie-sized leading lady has been slowly and masterfully cultivating a career through quick-witted, quick-talking roles in films like Up in the Air (which earned her an Academy Award nomination), and Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, only to cement herself as a film (and even Billboard Music) star with her leading turn in cult comedy Pitch Perfect. That film was likely the first real opportunity for cinema-goers at large to discover Kendrick’s killer pipes, and she has run with it ever since, starring in Into the Woods and now this film (not to mention next year’s Pitch Perfect 2). It has been quite a while since Hollywood has seen a bona fide musical star, and Kendrick sure seems to have her eyes on the prize.
Kendrick plays Cathy, opening the film with a melodically tricky lament of her departed husband of five years. That husband, Jamie (Jeremy Jordan), appears in the next scene, a flashback to happier times as the couple first meets and becomes intimate. As the film chugs along, its structure becomes clear, with Cathy telling her side of the story in reverse order, moving from break-up to joy, with Jamie’s side beginning at the beginning and lumbering toward their split. For the uninitiated, it is essentially (500) Days of Summer mixed with Memento with a lot more singing than either. Cathy is an aspiring actress and Jamie an aspiring writer, though their levels of success soon diverge in spectacular ways, as Jamie’s first manuscript turns him into a superstar overnight thanks to a deal with Random House, and Cathy can’t seem to escape summer theater in Ohio. As much as they would like to hope these stratifications in status would not derail their relationship, distance and jealousy cannot be denied.
Obviously, the structure of the film is such that not much can be considered a surprise. This is much more of a “how did this happen” tale than a “what’s going to happen” one. It is a structure that seems designed for the stage, compartmentalized into very clear scenes with need for little more than a cut to black and a scene change. It is important, then, for the two leads to be on equal footing, as a film of this design could easily find itself suffering from balance issues or wandering interests if Jamie and Cathy were not equal to the task. This is not a problem for Kendrick, of course, but it is for Jeremy Jordan. Jordan’s screen credits amount to little more than a stint on the doomed NBC show Smash and the forgettable Joyful Noise; he is far more recognized for his stage work, and while there are times success on the boards can translate to success on the screen, that is not the case here. His part feels awkward (this is perhaps partly the fault of the music, which often takes on that Sondheim-ian talk-singing trait that many have tried and failed to emulate), and his acting is simply not up to par with what is needed with such an unbalanced scene structure. It does not help that his opposite number is of the caliber of Anna Kendrick.
This is where the structure of The Last Five Years comes back to bite it. With songs so compartmentalized between the two leads and a back-and-forth scene design, it is incredibly difficult to maintain momentum when one of the leads is clearly so inferior to the other. Jamie feels like a nothing character beyond his relation to Cathy. Thus, while Kendrick is fantastic, and could easily carry the film herself, she feels unnecessarily saddled with dead weight. It does not help that LaGravenese is clearly more writer than director in his dual roles, as his staging and choice of camera angles are pedestrian at best. After what seems like the millionth slow-swooping transition shot across the sky, it is clear that LaGravenese is not bringing anything particularly filmic to this adaptation to the screen. A project like this needs that little special something, as its conception and structure is so clearly tied to the stage, and that simply is not present.
It is debatable that enough is present in Kendrick’s performance that The Last Five Years reaches some foundational level of interest. It is tough to describe as worth seeing, as Jordan is so inert and the direction so perfunctory, but Kendrick truly is a marvel, the sort of musical actress who does not erect a barrier between her singing performance and her acting. She is Cathy at all times, lived in and genuine, and her scenes and her songs are all the better for it. In practice, then, there is about half of a charming musical lurking within the film. But it has a bum knee and a bruised hip, and cannot manage much more than a shambling limp toward the finish line.