Movie review: ‘The Last Five Years’Section 4A, Movie Review Thursday, February 26th, 2015
Emily Blunt and Meryl Streep overshadowed her in this Christmas’s Into the Woods, and Neil Patrick Harris and Jack Black did it to her in the opening number on the Academy Awards last week, but in the barely released but wonderful musical The Last Five Years, Anna Kendrick reminded me just how amazing she can be. Because of Pitch Perfect, in which she’s the lead but also the least interesting character, and because of the terrible Twilight movies, in which she plays Bella’s best friend, I had almost forgotten her brilliantly funny, vulnerable and Oscar-nominated performance as a driven but naïve management consultant in Up in the Air. As soon-to-be heartbroken Cathy in The Last Five Years, she finally again has a role that allows her to go that big and that deep, and she’s amazing.
That I liked the film is surprising to me. When I reviewed the stage version of The Last Five Years in 2002, I was decidedly unkind: “If Jason Robert Brown is ‘the future of musical theater,’ as the New York Times would have it, then we’re in for a frustrating few decades. After winning a Tony for Parade in 1999 and making a name with Songs for a New World a few years before, Brown has come back with The Last Five Years, a sung-through he-said, she-said chronicle of the break-up of a marriage. Jamie (Norbert Leo Butz) is a narcissistic novelist wunderkind and Cathy (Sherie Rene Scott) is a struggling actress who can’t handle her husband’s fame. Both Butz and Scott are near brilliant, and the songs are lovely, catchy, even moving. But the uncomfortable subtext to the story is the break-up of Brown’s real-life marriage to a struggling actress, and it’s made worse by Brown’s blatant side-taking in the show: it’s all Cathy’s fault.”
While I knew that the music would still be beautiful, I was scared that the film would again blame Cathy for everything, which is perfectly fine for pure fiction, but not for thinly-veiled autobiography. Brown’s ex-wife Theresa O’Neil had to sue to make Brown rewrite Cathy into someone less like her. To my great pleasure, Richard LaGravanese’s beautifully directed adaptation makes Jamie the bad guy. However much of Cathy’s lack of self-confidence is a problem, Jamie saying/singing, “I will not fail so you can be comfortable, Cathy / I will not lose because you can’t win” is extremely unkind. So is sleeping with his fans, skipping her shows for book parties, and being so, so arrogant.
Kendrick’s performance as Cathy is marvelous, enough even to surpass Sherie Rene Scott’s famous performance in the original Off-Broadway production. Kendrick’s ability to broadcast gleeful happiness in one scene, dejection and hurt in another, agonizing love in a third, all the while singing with her warm-toned, clear-as-a-bell voice is revelatory. As her heart broke, mine did, too.
Jeremy Jordan, however, is no Norbert Leo Butz, whose versatility and charisma were striking. Jordan, who was made the lead in the second season of Smash, is extremely handsome and has a great voice, but he seems to exude conceit even when he’s trying to seem humble; it’s his resting bitch-face. I can see why Cathy fell in love with him, but I can also see how the love was doomed from the start.
I was profoundly wrong about Brown’s future success. He went one to win another Tony and is considered one of the great living Broadway composers. That he allowed LaGravanese to retool The Last Five Years showed that he has conscience and humility, making him actually as different from Jamie as Cathy is supposedly from Theresa.
The Last Five Years
Written and directed by Richard LaGravanese
Starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan
At Reading Gaslamp and on Amazon.com
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