The Last Five Years ***
Dir: Richard LaGravenese. With: Anna Kendrick, Jeremy Jordan. 12A cert, 94 min
Maybe we have Glee to thank, or blame; maybe it’s iPods putting music inside our heads 24/7. Either way, the elevating transgression of having characters burst into song has become normalised: everybody’s doing it nowadays, and with no more self-consciousness than one might display whistling outdoors. The Last Five Years sounds like a vocal warm-up for the incoming Pitch Perfect sequel: it’s Anna Kendrick, again, and showtunes. Yet the numbers in Jason Robert Brown’s off-Broadway musical were arranged around an overtly emotional core; its post-mortem of a formative fling considered why we first start singing – and what happens when the melody abates.
Brown’s show preceded (500) Days of Summer, which shuffled in this direction, but the movie adaptation, written and directed by Richard LaGravenese, bears its marked influence. Here are similarly scattered episodes from the coupling of two creatively minded New York twentysomethings: boy-wonder novelist Jamie (Jeremy Jordan) and Cathy (Kendrick), an aspirant actress flunking one audition after another. When they aren’t expressing themselves on stage or at the typewriter, they can be found trilling at one another: first around their boho apartment, then over Skype, finally in tear-stained letters. Scant surprise they feel a need to take a break.
Might we, too, want to call the whole thing off? Around 95% of LaGravenese’s film is sung-through, and that relentlessness feels a potential stumbling block. By expending as much energy on book as on score, studio-era musicals afforded their audience breathing space; these latter-day, Louie Spence-age musicals can seem awfully needy in their incessant jazz-handing. Brown’s non-stop razzle-dazzle may intend to obscure how he hasn’t much plot here beyond preppy skylarking, but matters occasionally get manically tinny: you recoil from Cathy’s proposal acceptance – “I’ll be your wife! I want to bear your child!” – as you would from anybody else yelping out their innermost thoughts.
Still, while never as lived-in as those of, say, Once, these tunes prove oddly more memorable than the Disneyfied Sondheim of Into the Woods: a songsmith who thinks to rhyme “batty” with “Cincinnati”, Brown is equally clever in modulating pitch towards characterisation. Where Jordan’s Jamie finds his voice early, Kendrick/Cathy does but belatedly; their outpourings poignantly record the ways success alters this couple’s trajectory. Your resistance will increase the further you are from the protagonists in age, yet LaGravenese’s direction remains appreciably intimate, ensuring this project ends up close to where it began: not one for the ages, perhaps, but a pretty good night out nevertheless.
The Last Five Years opens in selected cinemas from today, ahead of its DVD release on May 4.