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10/16/14

Break Up With Your Significant Other and Clear Your Valentine's Day Schedule...You Have to See The Last Five Years

I actually didn’t realize how excited I was to see the film adaptation of The Last Five Years. Weird, because while I never have a set-in-stone list of my all-time favorite musicals, Jason Robert Brown’s stunningly beautiful score and hilarious/heartbreaking examination of Cathy and Jamie’s five-year relationship - the former’s perspective told reverse-chronologically, the latter’s told chronologically - comes to my mind quite often.

Maybe I haven’t thought much about this film because, other then the theatre-newsphere, The Last Five Years is not and never has been water-cooler conversation. At least when compared to the Les Miserables epic blockbuster or even the upcoming Peter Pan Live! production or the Into the Woods film. Thanks to their big-budget production values, top-tier acting ensembles and wide-spread advertising/marketing/PR campaigns, they become engrained into our culture and collective consciousness (even if only temporarily).


So, I noticed that the Hamptons International Film Festival was having a screening monday night of The Last Five Years and I had my ticket purchased within 15 minutes. I left my work place early to drive some 90 minutes out in the Hamptons. As you do.

I took my seat. I glance around to see a mostly empty theater, less some wealthy Hampton-ites whom could probably buy and sell me if I availed myself. In my head, I scolded Long Island for not coming out to the musical event of 2015, just y’know, four months earlier. Someone from the Film Festival introduced the film. I started devouring my over-priced popcorn because I didn’t have time to grab dinner and I wasn’t about to put my faith into movie theater nachos or hummus-in-a-box. The movie began and some preliminary credits rolled. The opening piano/violin combination of feelz that is "Still Hurting" started…

Four minutes later, after the song faded out, I was done. DONE. Done, I tell you. I actually thought to myself, “this is what I’ve been excited for all day? Oh. Right. The Last Five Years gets SERIOUS. And FAST.”

I mean, I loved it. But man, I couldn’t even breathe as I realized what was happening before my eyes. Jamie had left and Cathy is…well, hurting. Still hurting, as it were.

I could have left right there satisfied because those few minutes in that movie theater captured me in a euphoria I haven’t felt since…well, since The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time mades its rounds in the cinemas. When The Last Five Years is firing on all cylinders - when the actors are blasting their pipes, when the music soars, when the stakes and tension are at their highest - it’s the relationship roller coaster of a lifetime.

That is why this film is so spectacular. Because it knows well enough that the music and the story can hold its own and when carried out by two first-rate talents - as I’ll elaborate in much much more detail, Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan did some fantastic work - the entire package is there and extremely-well rendered.

I shouldn’t really be surprised that they got this adaptation right. With Jason Robert Brown providing the music and Sherie Rene Scott, whom originated the role of Cathy in the first Off-Broadway production of The Last Five Years, listed as a producer, the movie was only going to benefit from their oversight. Nearly every staging of The Last Five Years is so minimalist - two actors, the band, a stage and some quick-costume changes - that the film quite accurately preserved that “less is more,” indie feel. The result? A quintessential indie musical!

And you can’t really envision the show any other way. Had this film been over-styled or overwrought, the essence of the original show would have went up in flames and the devastation would have ruined my life and affected my children. In fact, the only times where I was loving this film less is when they fucked with the low-budget set-up by turning The Last Five Years into a Steven Soderbergh or a Michael Bay film. No joke, during some scenes, director Richard LaGravenese uses the shaky camera of doom filming technique and GIRLWHATTTTTTTT...

But wait, there’s more…in other scenes, the camera swerves and pans and rotates the camera around Cathy and/or Jamie, creating this unnecessary, frenetic, "running away from an explosion with a giant robot" feel and…No. Just no. Stop. Stop it now; I can’t.

An investment in a tripod is all it would have took to make this film another notch better. Just saying.

But that’s…just about it in the major complaint department. And to LaGravenese’s credit, his visions for most of the songs either exceed expectations or take such an unusual approach, that it upends the meanings or the emotional takeaways of the songs as we know it. There are moments that verge on being a little too literal (i.e Cathy and/or Jamie sing about Thing X, Person Y or Place Z and then the camera pans or cuts to Thing X, Person Y or Place Z), but that’s both a preferential sorta thing and a minor complaint overall.

Structurally, Jamie and Cathy are scene partners in some of the numbers and montages, but while one of them is singing their solos, the other is panned to for reaction shots, the occasional bit of dialogue (need not worry though; the show is still, like, 97% sung-through) or is just a body prop for the singing character to play off of. This was a great way for fostering character development, sung or unsung, and building the dynamic between Cathy and Jamie. When the two of them partake in their duets (the engagement/marriage scenes when their story lines intersect and the finale of "Goodbye Until Tomorrow/I Could Never Rescue You”), which effectively, are what their solo numbers build towards, their chemistry and tension is fully-realized and provide every payoff imaginable.

LaGraveness also deploys the Tom Hooper Les Miserables close-up - a framing device that would normally send me running in the opposite direction - but I was pleasantly surprised how well it worked (probably because it wasn’t overused). Not just because Jordan and Kendrick have mugs built for the camera, but, like all world-class actors, they can convey even the most subtle of emotions. Kendrick’s cry-singing, in particular, was such an arresting vision that I can’t get it out of my head a few days later.

The montages for some of the numbers are stellar too, considering their limited budget didn’t allow for a plethora of locations, extras and the like. Some of the cinematography is picturesque - Central Park, the lake/pier in “Ohio” - and it is always fun to see footage of the theater district (Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike was still playing at the Golden Theater when this was filmed). The “A Summer in Ohio” and “Moving Too Fast’ numbers are pitch-perfect, with the former a laugh-out-loud series of sight-gags to so many iconic theatre characters and the latter being the film’s most prevalent “classic theatre” homage with the upbeat song, the Times Square back-drop, the clear skies and back-up dancers.

So, I think it’s time we talk about our stars, shall we? Because they are in ultra-fine form. Jeremy Jordan’s Jamie is a hybrid of Norbert Leo Butz charm and Marlon Brando swagger. You won’t buy him as the smart-author type, but not a single fuck will be given once that boy starts unleashing his charisma and his voice. His "Shiksa Goddess” was as smooth as butter and the fact that he sold me on the ridiculously fun and high-camp "belting while stripping and fornicating” - you guys, THAT HAPPENED!!! - means we’re off to a good start. “Moving Too Fast,” coupled with the fantastic staging, is an adrenaline-pumping stunner and the perfect showcase for Jordan’s “Leading Man on Broadway" talents.

However, his "Schmuel Song” is a low-point for the film (too broad, verging on parody). But it was Jordan’s “Nobody Needs to Know” that really took me aback. In what is already a complex song, Jordan added a manic intensity to the number. I always perceived Jamie as partially apologetic for betraying Cathy, but mostly self-serving as he scapegoats her for causing the divide in their relationship. With Jeremy, Jamie is...self-loathing and fearful. Fear of the consequences, fear of the future and a fear of himself. He performs this number in his underwear and you would think that image of him would be rugged and dirty hot, but I think ANYONE would be slightly apprehensive to bang him while he is emoting all over the floor. Congrats dude - you actually made yourself less fuckable (if only for a few minutes) and went to a creepy place, adding an edge to Jamie I’ve never seen before.

And then there is Anna Kendrick. Whom is so phenomenal on screen that she made me temporarily forget about every other Cathy I’ve ever heard or seen.

Okay, she’s not, like, 100% flawless or anything; her voice wasn't the most well-suited for “Still Hurting.” On the one hand, I could have told you that in advance (and she’s gone on record before with a similar sentiment) and to be fair, that is a difficult song to nail. You need the right balance of a “pretty and delicate-sounding” voice and a “I’M IN PAIN, YOU SUCK JAMIE” belt and almost every rendition askews towards the former. For the best iteration of this song, I’m forwarding you to Lea Salonga - once she sang that number, that’s all she wrote.

Then, Kendrick bounced back with the impossible: making Cathy tolerable during “See, I'm Smiling.” When she is PISSED OFF at Jamie for bailing on her, she perfectly embodied the disappointment and anger Cathy is feeling in that moment. That song is what usually turns the audience against her for looking like an unrepentant bitch, but I found myself working up some sympathy. Her “I’m A Part of That” was beautifully sad, watching her go from party to gala to bar to whatever feeling alone.

Fast forward to “The Cathy Hyatt Show” - what I lovingly refer to as “A Summer in Ohio,” “Climbing Uphill/Audition Sequence” and “I Could Do Better Than That” - because Lady Kendrick, in typically Kendrick fashion, let loose her bonafide star. Like, we know she’s a star and she knows she's a star…and after several songs of sadness and despair, she just ups and sets ablaze that screen without thinking twice about it. She KILLED the “A Summer in Ohio” number - even a horny Jeremy Jordan couldn’t pull focus away from her - and her stream of consciousness in the “Audition Sequence” had me on the floor laughing. And by the time “ I Can Do Better Than That” and “Goodbye Until Tomorrow” comes around, she’s a ray of sunshine and her exuberance was infectious. All the awards; Team Kendrick for everything.

These two performers are the real deal together. If you knew them in real life, you would ship the fuck out of them and live vicariously through every twist and turn in their relationship. As I was watching along, I wanted to grab Ben & Jerry's with Cathy and tell her “GURL, YOU are a MESS and I can’t with your insecurities." I wanted to celebrate along with Jamie as he ascends up the ranks of novel-writing…and then kick him in the gonads for his betrayal. Perfectly understandable reactions, as far as I’m concerned.

I was a bit disappointed to see the rest of the audience not as into the film as I was, some of whom even mentioned they were downright unimpressed after the film concluded. In some ways, that should be expected - after all, I was the only one who laughed out loud at Besty Wolfe’s HI-FREAKIN-LARIOUS cameo or Jason Robert Brown’s brief appearance. There’s no happy endings here or an overwhelming amount of feel-good moments. Mass appeal was just never on the menu, even as I naively hoped that other people would love this film like I did. But I feel like it accomplished what it set out to do - maintain its loyalty to the source material and satisfy its original fans. Winning over a new crowd is probably just a minor ambition…and who knows, maybe that will happen. But with the reception of the film a little ‘just so' on the festival circuit, I tend to think this one is just for the theatre-lovers. Which…you know, I’m proud to consider The Last Five Years a representation of our community; I’ll take whatever larger platform we can get and I LOVED this film to boot. Valentine's Day is about love and romance and this film is basically a subversive antithesis of that - so I know where I’ll be come next February. Never change, The Last Five Years, never change.


Photo Credit: The Last Five Years

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