The second annual Middleburg Film Festival kicked off with the journey of a young couple’s trials and tribulations that play out mixed results in the mesmerizing musical, The Last Five Years.
Based on the award-winning play, the film tells the story of two star-crossed lovers, Cathy (Anna Kendricks) and Jamie (Jeremy Jordan) through their courtship, marriage and painful separation. While the theme is familiar, the fact that writer/director Richard LaGravenese sets the drama exclusively to music simultaneously heightens aspects of the story while minimizing the ultimate execution.
Opening with Cathy despondent and tearfully belting out “Still Hurtin,” we find this heartbroken woman recounting her painful breakup with Jamie. The story alternates between both lovers as we see what brought the lovers together and the events which drive a wedge between their happiness. After what seemed like an eternity moving in and out of courtships with women that he finds unattractive, Jamie hits the jackpot when he meets his “Shiksa Goddess,” Cathy.
The two enjoy a passionate and loving courtship, which ultimately leads to them getting married. It is then that small chinks began to develop in their relationship as Jamie becomes a best-selling author and Cathy feels relegated to the background. It also doesn’t help that Jamie begins to bore with his wife and proceeds to explore options away from home.
A passion project for LaGravenese, he was adamant that he wanted to maintain the integrity of the stage play by having his leads sings nearly all of the dialogue in the film. Fans of musicals will be entertained by the fine performances of Kendrick and Jordan; others may be turned off by the volume and repetitive nature of the film’s songbook.
Despite boasting an impressive career mixing celebrated dramatic performances with courageous indie work, Kendricks is no stranger to lifting her voice on the big screen with turns in Camp and Pitch Perfect. Under LaGravenese’s direction, she is radiates sensuality and a big voice to match. Not just a beautiful voice, Kendricks also does a wonderful job of emoting, serving as the heart and soul of this story. Her joy (and pain) are ours and we rejoice in her happiness and empathize with her struggles.
Jordan bounces back nicely from his disastrous debut in Joyful Noise, perfectly complimenting Kendricks. This time around working with superior material, Jordan uses his experience on the stage to successfully convey as much emotion as LaGravenese’s script allows. Despite the fact that his character’s dissatisfaction and motivations are not fully explored, it doesn’t take away from his winning performance.
The key to a successful musical is a memorable and entertaining songbook and both leads do their best to bring it home. The task of bringing it all together rests on the shoulders of LaGravenese, who has had his share of writing hits including Bridges of Madison County, The Fisher King, Beloved and recently, Behind the Candelabra. Beginning his career as a screenwriter before transitioning into directing, LaGravenese is a huge fan of musicals and his passion is on display in this film. Getting rid of the isolated songs from the play and having Cathy and Jamie sing directly to each other works well on the big screen but sticking to the structure of the stage play feels limiting, with key aspects of the story appearing either missing or never fully explained.
Based on playwright Jason Robert Brown’s failed marriage, The Last Five Years is the type of story that will entertain fans of musicals but is just another in a long line failed relationship dramas that demonstrates once again that not only is love hard but asks the pointed question – ultimately what is the point?