Whatever charm or musicality the stage version held for theater goers, Richard LaGravenese’s film adaptation of composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown’s “The Last Five Years” is a complete bust. Watching this movie, you feel like you’ve been sitting in your seat for at least that long.
LaGravenese has taken the usual tack of “opening up” a stage show, although in this case it was designed as a hermetically constructed, two-actor chamber piece that probably needed to stay that way.
To see two characters romp through New York streets, apartments, parties and parks where everyone else is a dress extra — there’s very little dialogue other than the songs themselves — looks downright silly.
You never get to meet the couples’ friends or family. Everyone simply stands aside and grins silly grins. This “opening up” also denies the structural trick of the show itself.
Brown’s musical, which premiered off-Broadway in 2002, played out the romance, marriage and divorce between a struggling actress, who never catches a break, and a struggling writer, who winds up a best-selling novelist.
As I understand it, the musical’s structure went in reverse order for the two characters: She experiences the relationship starting with the devastating conclusion, then her story moves backwards.
The film struggles to maintain this structure. Since the two actors are always front and center in nearly every scene, a moviegoer gets no idea of separate journeys. Instead the film seems to jump about fitfully through the ups and downs of the romantic relationship to the point you’re never exactly certain where you are.
Did they have that quarrel before this new scene? Oh no, that was a year earlier — or maybe a year later? Sometimes only the expressions on the actors’ faces give you a clue as to how things are going.
Anna Kendrick’s musical turn in “Into the Woods” undoubtedly will help at the box office and she pairs nicely with Jeremy Jordan, a Tony nominee who starred in NBC’s musical drama “Smash.” Both are capable musical performers although Kendrick’s voice is sometimes thin in certain passages.
Kendrick plays Cathy, the shiksa goddess who captivates Jordan’s nice Jewish boy Jamie when they meet. Jamie makes it clear in an early number that his family will most likely be unhappy about such a mixed relationship, a disapproval that seemingly overjoys this rebellious son.
Curiously this aspect to the romance is ignored from there on. What role does it actually play in their eventual breakup. If it plays no role at all, then why bring it up?
Since no one else is allowed to dent the duo’s cocoon you never encounter either set of parents or any friends in the many scenes with background actors and dancers.
More annoyingly, and this must have been an annoyance in the stage show as well, Brown has picked sides: The entire story is seen from Cathy’s point of view
From beginning to end — well, end to beginning or however you choose to view the story — Jamie is a smug, self-absorbed, egotistical jerk. And Cathy a long-suffering but supportive girlfriend then spouse, whose pain Jamie is oblivious to.
One of the show’s running gags is that her only steady employment is with a lame summer stock company in the Midwest. In one scene, Jamie has jetted into town to spend quality time with her but, oops, must rush back for a Random House party to meet and greet the same faces he sees virtually every month. No time for Cathy!
And so it goes throughout the show. Jamie even grows to resent her pain. So what if she never gets a big break? He makes enough money to support their Brooklyn townhouse and even spends the occasional evening with her — when he isn’t singing a song about all the feminine temptation thrown his way.
LaGravanese, who has never directed a movie musical, doesn’t feel at home in the genre. Stagings feel awkward and forced; it never bursts from the confines of its two-hander format.
And then there’s this: Other than a couple of numbers about a stage hopeful’s trials and tribulations that might have fit nicely into “The Chorus Line,” nothing sparkles here; the issue of this romance/marriage doesn’t clamour for your attention.
Nothing makes you care for this couple so the musical drones tediously on without discovering a reason to exist at all. Other than the fact the two characters’ lives are involved in seemingly glamorous fields — theater and publishing — they could be any other American couple whose marriage ends in divorce. Which means over half the country.
Opens: February 13, 2015 (Radius)
Production companies: Lucky Monkey Pictures, Sh-K-Boom Records, The Exchange
Cast: Anna Kendrick, Jeremy Jordan
Director/screenwriter: Richard LaGravenese
Based on the musical by: Jason Robert Brown
Producers: Lauren Versel, Kurt Deutsch, Janet Brenner, Richard LaGravenese
Executive producers: Laura Ivey, Alan Simpson, Brian O’Shea, Don Simpson, Robert Immerman, Paul Silver, Sherie Renee Scott, Ruth Mutch, Craig Balsam, Jen Namoff, Geoff Soffer
Director of photography: Steven Meizler
Production designer: Michael Fitzgerald
Costume designer: Ciera Wells
Music: Jason Robert Brown
Choreographer: Michele Lynch
Editor: Sabine Hoffmann
PG-13 rating, 94 minutes