Cult musical translates well to screen

I’m a romantic at heart. In spite of my loneliness and reservations about the world, I root for those who find love and hurt when they lose it. However, I much prefer fiction that takes us through the heartbreak and fallout of a relationship, rather than from a mere meet-cute to some cheesy happily ever after. It’s the very reason why I love Jason Robert Brown’s musical “The Last Five Years,” recently adapted into a film by screenwriter and director Richard LeGrevanese. It’s the antithesis to the modern rom-com; there is no happy ending, and somehow that’s okay.

“The Last Five Years” is universal in its specificity: it follows the deconstructed love affair of rising novelist Jamie Wellerstein (Jeremy Jordan) and struggling actress Cathy Hiatt (Anna Kendrick). Cathy’s story moves backwards through time, while Jamie’s moves forwards; the two only interact once, when their timelines meet at the moment they say, “I do.”

Kendrick soars in her role as Cathy. She is determined, has a fire in her spirit, captures the character’s dry sense of humor and really embodies what it means to be broken down by your own insecurities. No, her vocals aren’t always spot on—in most cases she relies too heavily on her belt, which risks reaching shrill levels, to carry her straight through the numbers. Still, she makes the most of every second, capturing Cathy’s emotional state in any given moment. Even when the attention shifts to Jordan, Kendrick’s reactions to him and understanding of subtlety allows her to seamlessly steal his scenes.

Film acting, in fact, clearly suits Kendrick more than Broadway veteran Jordan. Jordan is capable of accomplishing vocal gymnastics throughout the film, so there’s no question that he can sing the role of Jamie. But his Jamie is pigheaded and lacks a charm needed for the audience to sympathize with him from beginning to end. During moments of high tension, he falls into hammy acting choices, gesticulating wildly and yelling more than singing, performing for an audience rather than focusing on engaging with Kendrick. The conversational, genuine tone of the original soundtrack is sometimes obscured too, but when Jordan kerns it back and lets himself be vulnerable, it works.

Of all the choices made during the transition from stage to film, the decision to place Jamie and Cathy in almost every scene together is the most different. I understand why this needed to be done—on screen, they need to interact. In isolating the characters on stage, we get the sense that neither is ever on the same page, but in the film we see it more as neither character is ever actually listening to the other one. Jamie lunges himself at Cathy when she’s expressing her most vulnerable thoughts during “I Can Do Better Than That”; Cathy’s snide remarks belittle Jamie’s efforts to cheer her up during “The Schmuel Song.” We get to see Cathy and Jamie as an actual couple, which answers the question of what they ever saw in one another to begin with and makes painfully obvious how one could be unaware of the other person’s hurting.

The dialogue may be clunky and superfluous at times, and the transitions could have been smoothed out in the editing process to reduce confusion about the switching timelines and chronological errors. I think these issues lie in the material itself: it’s meant for the stage, so as valiant an effort as LeGravenese made, the film would never be able to get it all right.

But what he does get right is applaudable: The film expands the world of Jamie and Cathy. Stripped down and minimalist, the original staging of “The Last Five Years” would have failed to thrive on screen. The movie is able take us through New York and to the pier in Ohio; it’s filled with bold, radiant colors that breathe new life into the songs. As their love dwindles, so too do the colors fade. For an indie film, it looks like it was made with a Hollywood budget.

I doubt I’ll buy the movie’s soundtrack—the original is packed with richer vocals and brilliant transitions, but overall, the film is a beautiful homage, one worth watching until these songs never leave you.

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