Successful couples tend to stay on the same page — they want the same things, live near the same location and inhabit the same singular directional time continuum.
For Cathy Hiatt (Anna Kendrick) and Jamie Wellerstein (Jeremy Jordan), all of the above is true. The story of their marriage — the musical-theater adaptation of “The Last Five Years” — progresses simultaneously forward and backward. Jamie’s perspective chronologically covers the rise and fall of their marriage, while Cathy recounts backward.
The pair alternates singing from their points of view, making the audience piece the couple’s relationship from the start and end to the middle. It’s an interesting technique. Five years, 14 songs, two narratives, two timelines braided together — this is one musical tragicomedy that, if not for the powerhouse singing wrought with conviction and the interspersed humor, everyone should watch for the unique and seamless format alone.
Because Cathy’s opening song, “Still Hurting,” exposes the gray aftermath of their divorce, the film becomes not a matter of what happens, but how. When their forward-backward temporal progression finally aligns at the climax — Cathy’s and Jamie’s engagement (“The Next Ten Minutes”) — the couple’s duet belts a strong testament to not only the harmony of shared love, but also the necessity of being in emotional unison for a joyful relationship.
Immediately countering “Still Hurting,” the story flashes back to their beginning, as Jamie and Cathy storm a bedroom, raucously undressing each other. Between kisses, Jamie breaks into song, “Shiksa Goddess,” and Kendrick’s startled and almost judgemental reactions perfectly capture the criticism of cinema goers unaccustomed to the sans-dialogue musical style.
Jamie catapults off the bed to catalogue his ex-girlfriends — “I’ve been waiting through Heather Greenblatt, Annie Mincus, Karen Pincus and Lisa Katz” — who all appear in an awkward fantasy transition where every woman manifests in a physical lineup — a directional tactic better reserved for the live stage.
But overall, the cinematography delivers a fantastic, refreshing sight for fans of the original theater production. Bright, sunny tones define the beginning stages of the relationship while demure, gray lighting label the later stages. The movement of long, slow pan shots and tilt shots complement the story’s thematic emphasis on time, while also giving breath to the captivating voices of stars Kendrick and Jordan, whose performances astoundingly rival that of the Off-Broadway originals Sherie Rene Scott and Norbert Leo Butz.
Yet sadly, while Jason Robert Brown’s masterful structure provides the film’s greatest appeal, the characters themselves come across paper thin. Jamie’s career as a big-time author becomes his primary characteristic, evidenced by the archetype writer scene where he composes with pen on paper, wearing cliche glasses needed nowhere else in the film. He’s also volatile and unlikeable.
Though Cathy, an actress at wit’s end from rejected castings, sings, “I will not be the girl who requires a man to get by” (“Climbing Uphill”), her over-the-top loving praise depicts a dated portrayal of romance. At Jamie’s proposal, she proclaims, “I want to be your wife / I want to bear your child.” Jamie exalts Cathy as his true love, but on her own, the struggling actress (another worn musical trope) is as generic as the 200 girls auditioning against her.
Resounding above the shallow character construction, the passionate talents of Kendrick and Jordan undoubtedly shine. The “Pitch Perfect” star’s punchy comedic timing relieves the film from the looming adversity of their divorce.
Perhaps the flattened character quality, however, stands so that any couple could substitute into this breakup story. After all, the downfalls of Cathys and Jamie’s relationship — lack of time for each other and an inability to always live in the same place — is the very structure of “The Last Five Years’ ” elaborate format.
Film goers will exit their seats reflecting on the importance of being in sync, realizing that the two perspectives in a relationship are not, perhaps, as opposite as they seem.
Contact Jennifer Wong at [email protected].