“I tend to follow in his stride, instead of side by side,” struggling actress Cathy Hiatt (Anna Kendrick) sings of her husband, successful novelist Jamie Wellerstein (Jeremy Jordan), in The Last Five Years, trying in vain to convince herself that she’s a necessary ingredient in his future. “I’m a part of that, aren’t I?” Though Cathy’s own career remains below the footlights in Jason Robert Brown’s 2001 musical, adapted for the screen and directed by Richard LaGravenese, this soulful expression of encroaching disappointment is the mark of a star turn. Carrying the torch of the movie-musical ingénue through Pitch Perfect, Into the Woods, and now the maddeningly noncommittal The Last Five Years, Kendrick brings to her role the emotional openness of a stage actress trying to reach the back row of the theater. She’s not just a part of it, but the whole damn thing.
Kendrick’s charisma lends texture to the otherwise anesthetic proceedings, deftly reconstructing one half of a romance that we know is doomed from the opening minutes. In her willingness to test a heightened sonic and sentimental register, her performance is as heartfelt as LaGravenese’s direction is guarded: Though he retains the musical’s innovative conceit, in which Jamie’s numbers move through the five-year relationship in chronological order and Cathy’s begin at the end of the marriage and work backward, LaGravenese seems to lack any sense of the source material’s interpretive possibilities. Featuring few lines of spoken dialogue, The Last Five Years turns to bold songwriting to narrate an understated relationship drama, allowing for both raw, dressed-down presentations and theatrical flights of fancy. Yet LaGravenese’s preferred aesthetic here is superficial rom-com sheen, Hollywood luxe with intermittent dollops of tattered hipster chic. His one nod at visual storytelling is to turn the Instagram filter from “warm” to “cool” as the relationship sours.
Despite the shout-outs to musical theater nerds, then, such as a sign advertising productions of Les Misérables, Lil Abner, Company, and Carousel at the Ohio retreat where Cathy performs each summer, The Last Five Years mostly skirts any connection to the genre as though it were faintly embarrassed. This is a strange choice, considering that nearly every word in the film is sung, and yet the handful of gestures toward the form’s more fantastical elements are perfunctory at best. The foot-tapping “Shiksa Goddess” includes a brief glimpse of the long line of Jewish women Jamie’s dated, standing before a black background as though floating through in his mind; later, as he sings an ode to personal and professional happiness (“My heart’s been stolen/My ego’s swollen/I just keep rolling along”), pedestrians suddenly form an impromptu dance company—and then disperse just as quickly. That (500) Days of Summer embraced a similar sequence with far more zeal is telling: Unwilling to turn up the volume on either the emotional realism or the bubblegum artifice, The Last Five Years practically wills itself to disappear.
Jordan, with the dulcet voice and handsome face of your average chorus-line hunk, fails to free Jamie from these aesthetic shackles, playing the young writer’s restless ambition as an inevitable byproduct of being thrust into a world of fame, wealth, and beautiful women at an early age. To his credit, however, LaGravenese appears to realize what he has in Kendrick, and it’s when she’s in focus that The Last Five Years comes alive. Whether wryly funny, annotating Jamie’s rendition of “The Schmuel Song” with snide remarks, or stirring, as in the lovely “Still Hurting,” Kendrick manages to convey both the nostalgic and the regretful notes without withdrawing to the down-the-middle blandness that pervades the rest of the film. Even during the climactic argument, as Jamie segues into “If I Didn’t Believe in You,” the camera settles not on Jordan but on Kendrick, framed in the foreground as Cathy attempts to explain her frustration at always playing second fiddle. She soon goes silent, mouth quavering with the onset of tears, but she’s a showstopper nonetheless.