If there is one thing the film industry can mine like nobody’s business it is Broadway. Whether it is of the musical or play variety we have seen just as many adaptations on the big screen as book adaptations. Musicals are always tricky because not only do you need to pick the perfect actors for each role but, unlike the stage, you have free reign to expand each scene. With Jason Robert Brown’s cult show The Last Five Years not only does the plot seem perfect but the way it is told almost writes itself as a film. While the ingredients are there to make the adaptation a rare, modern musical classic it unfortunately suffers heavily in translation.
The Last Five Years follow couple Cathy (Anna Kendrick) and Jamie (Jeremy Jordan) from romantic beginnings to the crushing inevitability of breaking up. Instead of telling it straightforward though the film showcases it out of synch from both perspectives. While it is refreshing to see a romantic story be told in a unique way for a change there are issues with this. For one thing, especially late in the story, it becomes a bit difficult to tell where we are at certain points. The way Director Richard LaGravenese decides to shoot each sequence is very similar apart from minor details so one sequence that looks heavenly for the couple is actually a dark period for them.
That and, quite honestly, the couple as the focal point for this story are hardly compelling to follow. For one thing it appears that Cathy gets the majority of a negative spotlight while Jamie gets all the positives which feels sexist in a way. Through no fault of Anna Kendrick she appears moody and jealous of her partner which is not enough reason for such a huge split between them. Because of the jagged plot structure it becomes difficult to get a real handle with these two characters outside of their love is doomed. Even the musical components cannot really save the film as most of the lyrics are generic at best. At least Kendrick continues to showcase how she is the best musical actor of our generation by giving her all to her portion of the film.
Ultimately what ruins this film though is how choppy and uneven it looks. This is Steven Meizler’s first film as a Cinematographer and it is quite easy to tell that his past as a cameraman for Steven Soderbergh influenced him greatly. Meizler is hardly Soderbergh though as most of this film is poorly framed with extras or props filling the picture or, for whatever reason, LaGravenese decided to have the widest angle possible for each shot. It is difficult to be in the moment with these characters when it feels like we are watching through a telescope the entire time. That and whenever this film goes into ‘musical’ mode (i.e. extras dancing or cutaways to fantastical elements) it sharply goes away from the realism of the plot which LaGravenese should have known it was not working early on.
When a musical doesn’t work in film it REALLY does not work. The Last Five Years has the story and an amazing, leading woman in Anna Kendrick to make something worthwhile. But with poor characterization, generic melodies, and a confusing way to tell the story it becomes difficult to stay compelled with what is on screen. It would have been nearly impossible to fix anyways if we still had the same poor direction and cinematography like we do now. This adaptation might wind up being the perfect example to showcase that while a show works on stage it does not necessarily mean it will work on film.