Posted on September 9, 2014 at 3:58 am
“The Last Five Years” is the most emotionally satisfying experience I’ve had at this year’s festival — yes, an adaptation of a musical; yes, starring Anna Kendrick — and in its small-scale way it’s possibly the best stage-to-film musical adaptation of the entire post-”Chicago” boomlet.
You don’t really have to be a musical theater junkie to like “The Last Five Years.” I mean, if the form makes you cringe on general principle, by all means stay away. Myself, I think that once you get past Sondheim, everything in the genre should be rated on a 1-to-10 scale of jazz hands, from actively toxic to exceptionally tolerable, like hot sauce or how much pain you’re feeling today. This particular show, written by Jason Robert Brown, ran off-Broadway in 2002 and again last year, and it comes with a glib Sondheim-esque gimmick: The love, marriage, and separation of Jamie and Cathy are dramatized both forwards (his songs) and backwards (hers), with one rapturous duet when they cross in the middle.
Director Richard LaGravenese — that old softy, and here it helps — brings the play off the stage and into the air of approximate reality. The songs are sung in Manhattan living rooms and by the shores of lakes, on subways, street-corners, in bedrooms, and at book readings. The first two numbers, “Still Hurting” and “Shiksa Goddess,” bring us indoors, exchanging the stage’s formal frame for the unexpected intimacy of movie close-ups. It works surprisingly well. Then the third song, “See, I’m Smiling,” takes place on that sunny lakefront, and you briefly think, Ooh, I don’t know if I can take this much artifice for 90 minutes.
But “The Last Five Years” quickly rights itself. Jeremy Jordan (currently starring in “Finding Neverland” at the American Repertory Theater) puts across both Jamie’s likeability and his critical self-absorption, and Anna Kendrick is, well, a star. When I saw her in 2003’s “Camp,” looking like a drowned Yorkie and singing the hell out of “The Ladies Who Lunch,” I knew she was going to be something — as if anyone could stop her — but I didn’t figure she’d draw attention for her dramatic skills before her musical talent. But where do you get to sing in the movies these days? In “Pitch Perfect,” true, which has made her a cult figure to a generation of middle- and high-schoolers, and probably in the upcoming “Into the Woods,” where she plays Cinderella.
Still, this is the one that’s going to do the trick, I think, because Kendrick is so very much there as Cathy, a struggling actress with self-esteem issues and a husband whose success crushes her bit by bit. She doesn’t have one of those big, robust Broadway voices but rather a heartfelt keening that threatens to go whiny and instead opens up to levels of pitch and feeling you didn’t expect were there. I think Kendrick’s a good dramatic actress. I also think that when you add singing to the equation, she becomes something potentially unique: the first bona fide movie-musical star of her generation.