The Last Five Years (2014)

Dir. Richard LaGravenese. Starring Anna Kendrick, Jeremy Jordan, Natalie Knepp

A list of my ten favorite musicals right now, which is depressingly conventional, and maybe the clearest possible expression of my guilty pleasure (namely, well-off white people watching their lives go to pot; one might succinctly refer to it as the “Revolutionary Road  principle”):

  1. Miss Saigon
  2. Chess
  3. Les Miserables
  4. Hamilton
  5. The Last Five Years
  6. Passion
  7. Evita
  8. Next to Normal
  9. Company
  10. A Little Night Music

The Last Five Years‘ selling point is that it tells the same story in two directions. Cathy (Kendrick) tells her story backwards, from the end of the last five years, starting with when she finds her husband’s note and his wedding ring; Jamie (Jordan) tells his forward, from the beginning of the last five years, during an early sexual encounter with Cathy. The story meets twice: once, during “The Next Ten Minutes,” where Jamie proposes and Cathy accepts, and then again at the end, where Cathy reflects on her first date with Jamie and Jamie leaves Cathy for good. (One could argue that it happens again during “A Miracle Would Happen/When You Come Home to Me,” but there’s no clear interaction between the two of them in this song the way there is in “The Next Ten Minutes” and “Goodbye Until Tomorrow/I Could Never Rescue You,” either in the plot or the music.)

It’s a clever device for several reasons; my personal favorite is that it consistently changes the tone of the story on the viewer, never really allowing them to get comfortable with the idea of the impending divorce that is, of course, obvious from “Still Hurting.” A story that goes in chronological order like this numbs the viewer towards the end: imagine concluding with “Nobody Needs to Know,” “See I’m Smiling,” “I Could Never Rescue You,” and “Still Hurting.” Each song would have to top the last, or it would become anticlimactic. Better to alternate the optimistic strains of “I Can Do Better Than That” with the soft regret of “Nobody Needs to Know,” or to brush “See I’m Smiling” aside with the film’s best song for showcasing vocal talent, “Moving Too Fast.” Not only does it keep the plot from bogging itself down in misery, but it also treats the viewer like one of the movie’s principals: in other words, it’s hard not to think about how Jamie used to have torrid sex with Cathy (“Shiksa Goddess,” “I Can Do Better Than That”) during “Nobody Needs to Know,” when he’s explicitly having sex with other women. To borrow from Follies, one of the musicals The Last Five Years most reminds me of: “It isn’t just the bad things I remember! It’s the whole damn show.”

For fans of The Last Five Years, “The Schmuel Song” is absolutely the most polarizing of songs. It’s either one of the show’s gems, a delightful parable and a heartwarming scene, or it’s a weird distraction from whatever meager plot the show has. I’ve always been on Team Schmuel. It is maybe the only piece of proof that Jamie has a soft spot. “If I Didn’t Believe in You” is “The Schmuel Song” perverted, an expression of caring and sympathy that’s really an epic manipulation. “The Schmuel Song” is as close as Jamie can come to being honest with Cathy; tellingly, he can’t do it face to face. It has to come through a klezmer-infused story of a tailor with a talking clock.

Jordan is at his best in this scene, getting to play goofball, messing with the dummy, turning on Christmas lights at dramatic moments, overusing a thick accent, wrapping Kendrick up in garlands. (For her part, Kendrick has to be earnestly sad or earnestly mad or earnestly wistful or earnestly sexy or earnestly playful for so much of the film; it was nice that she got to snark, which remains one of her best modes.) It was hard to buy Jordan towards the end of the movie – this is not entirely his fault, as we’ll soon see – but at this point he exudes warmth. Here’s a guy who genuinely believes that he can, like God in Hamilton, give someone more time, and he wants to make sure, now that he’s becoming a success, that she can have every opportunity to become a success as well. There’s a gendered aspect to his gift that is distasteful, and echoed in “Climbing Uphill.”

I will not be the girl who gets asked how it feels

To be trotting along at the genius’ heels

I will not be the girl who requires a man to get by

Seventy, sixty, fifty years ago, this scene would have ended not with a watch, “a headshot guy, and a new Backstage” but with a check to furnish the sewing room upstairs, or maybe the latest vacuum cleaner. Even in the preliminary stages, Jamie is never really invested in Cathy’s career. His encouragement is a parable which showcases his own talent, a self-congratulation (look at the watch I can buy you! and you can quit your job! because I make us money!), and not a statement of “You’ll get that next part, I’m sure of it.” The team player in Jamie is absent, which is part of the reason I love that his personal connection to Cathy’s career in this scene is made up of things he grabbed more or less as an afterthought. It’s not surprising that his disinvestment in Cathy’s career is rapid;  “If I Didn’t Believe in You,” a passive-aggressive anthem par excellence, and it functions almost entirely on Jamie’s assertion that Cathy’s professional failure is what’s ruining their marriage. The counterpoint is that “See I’m Smiling,” more convincingly, makes the case that it’s Jamie’s very stereotypically male success – the worthless entourage, the fawning girls, the breadwinner status – that drives them apart. “The Schmuel Song” is thus very clever, more clever than I think it’s given credit for being, even by those of us who enjoy it. The seeds of Jamie’s pigheadedness are sown here, even if it flowered three songs before that.

The Last Five Years is directed amateurishly. LaGravenese’s best screen credits are as a screenwriter, not a director (The Fisher King, The Bridges of Madison County); his DP, Steven Meizler, worked cameras on about a zillion Spielberg movies in the ’90s and 2000s, but this film is one of only five where he’s credited as the cinematographer. The sets are static, the angles odd; much of the movie feels rather like watching from a bad angle in a theater, and I’m afraid that that was the point. I lost faith in them fairly early in the movie, during “Still Hurting,” when the camera pans in one direction, stops, and then goes back in the same direction from whence it came. I haven’t seen Fifty Shades of Grey, but I know that “Still Hurting” and “Nobody Needs to Know” and the “I Could Never Rescue You” portions of the movie shouldn’t be lit in such a way that make me think “sex dungeon.” Similarly, the visual tone of the film is set up with the same kind of subtlety that defines a fourth-grader’s reading homework. Bad things happen in dark lighting. Good things happen with sunshine. And yet, this movie seems to have everything: lens flare, Dutch angles, Skype, smirking Rust Belters. (It’s that thing where a movie has to have scenes set in Ohio but it’s just being shot in New York City, so New York has to stand in as semi-rural Ohio.)

For that reason, “Goodbye Until Tomorrow/I Could Never Rescue You” was a surprisingly effective sequence, especially after the mess that is most of the movie after “The Schmuel Song.” Most of it is Kendrick. The vowels are kinder to her in this song than in any other (they are emphatically not her friends in, say, “Still Hurting”), and the treacle that seeps into an otherwise charming scene, like “A Summer in Ohio,” is absent here. It’s just her, just pleasure, the one place in the movie where the sunset lighting is totally appropriate. Predictably, Jordan’s side of the scene is overwrought (you can still see the crease lines on him where they squeezed out the feelings for “If I Didn’t Believe in You” and “Nobody Needs to Know”), although it eventually levels off as we see him and his suitcase outside the apartment he just used to live in. Or maybe that’s Kendrick again, irresistible as ever, evening out his worn out face with that smile. Jordan’s expression finally seems appropriate after he all but did the Lea Michele eyesqueeze from Glee in his last two songs. Part of it, too, is that Jordan in a duet is far better than Jordan alone. By himself, he squeaks and declaims and shouts at the expense of the music; those inclinations are smoothed out, and his voice gets to be itself in “Goodbye Until Tomorrow/I Could Never Rescue You.” It’s still showoffish – my kingdom for Norbert Leo Butz – but it’s fitting. There’s no reason Jamie shouldn’t be a showoff as he dramatically leaves a letter and his wedding band for his wife to find in the next ten minutes, five years after she sings “I will keep waiting, I’ll be waiting for you.”

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