It’s he sang/she sang as a Gotham couple moving in opposite directions lead us through half a decade of ups and downs in “The Last 5 Years,” Jason Robert Brown’s beautifully written Off Broadway tuner. She begins in tears and works her way back to the beginning, while his arc builds from giddy first love through career success, discord and heartbreak. In this Radius-acquired shoestring screen adaptation, director Richard LaGravenese ditches the high-concept staging but keeps the songs, inviting the chemistry between leads Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan to factor into an approach so rudimentary, it feels almost like watching a dress rehearsal.
Technically, “The Last 5 Years” is a tuner auds could experience fully with their eyes closed, and as it turns out, that’s practically how LaGravenese discovered it, listening to the CD before ever seeing the show. Likewise, much of the film’s audience will be coming in blind, unburdened by memories of Brown’s unique approach, where performing the songs as alternating solos on a nearly empty stage underscores the fact these two lovers were almost never on the same page, meeting just once in the middle for a duet in Central Park.
Even though the characters are nearly always shown together onscreen, Brown’s separate-wavelengths subtext still comes through, thanks to the split chronologies and the fact that, apart from a few patches of newly inserted dialogue, each scene is clearly seen from one person’s p.o.v. An aspiring actress whose career never quite clicks, Cathy Hiatt (Kendrick, beautiful, despite an unfortunate blonde rinse) gets the show’s two best songs, opener “Still Hurting” and “I’m a Part of That,” though her character seems to exist in the shadow of Jamie Wallerstein (Jordan, unconventionally handsome), a hotshot writer who tastes success at 23, making for an imbalanced relationship.
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As the pic opens, Cathy sits in the couple’s half-empty brownstone, while a pianist supplies the first notes of score upstairs: “Jamie is over and Jamie is gone / Jamie’s decided it’s time to move on.” Over the course of the next 90-odd minutes, we discover the passion that brought them together, getting glimpses into each’s past relationships and sensing what a bold and reckless prospect it is when Jamie, fresh off a life-changing call from Random House publishers, proposes that they move in together.
But as his career advances by leaps and bounds (an appropriate cliche, given the way time skips around here, with his novel gaining traction on the bestseller list), we already know where hers stands at the end: doing summer-stock theater in Ohio, for the second year in a row. In interviews, Brown has suggested that the backstory for the musical is personal, but not directly autobiographical, and it’s encouraging to find a male writer capable of doing justice to the female perspective, even as Jamie’s character can’t seem to make heads or tales of her mood swings.
From a music and lyrics point of view, Brown writes musicals that work for people who don’t necessarily like musicals. The arrangements are intuitive, the lyrics straightforward and conversational, giving the impression that in emotionally pitched situations, characters have intuitively stepped up from speaking to song, while that next-door pianist proves all the segue auds need to ease from the outside world into the movie’s melodic universe.
LaGravenese reinforces the material’s internal logic with unfussy direction — not so different from the pared-back approach John Carney took to “Once” — shooting in real parks and apartments, rather than on stages. Several of the pieces call for inventive interpretation, especially the pick-me-up story-song “Schmuel,” and (a bit more unevenly) the hand-off from Cathy’s funny-sad audition process to the just-sad way Cathy feels at one of Jamie’s first readings. Still others call for the leads to sing through an entire number in a single shot as the pic’s active and engaged d.p., Steven Meizler, circles in close.
While the film sounds fantastic, the visual side amounts to an opportunity missed. LaGravenese has deliberately avoided turning this into another one of those stiff, stagebound musicals where performers in thick pancake makeup lip-sync to music tracks (Kendrick skewers such tuners in “A Summer in Ohio”), although nearly any helmer who’s ever directed a musicvideo would be able to suggest improvements that would elevate the look without dropping a note of authenticity. Beyond scrappy, “The Last 5 Years” lacks a unifying aesthetic, as if this were merely the run-through, grabbed on the fly without lights, costumes or location permits. This approach does improve upon the stage show in one key respect, however, allowing us to see all those crooned-over emotions writ large on the faces of its two terrific lead performers — and what a pair they make!