Monday, March 2, 2015

The Last Five Years: Two-Handed Musical

Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick stars in The Last Five Years.

What could have been in writer-director Richard LaGravenese’s head when he came up with the cockeyed idea of adapting Jason Robert Brown’s through-sung two-character musical The Last Five Years to the screen? Did he believe that the two characters, Jamie (played in the film by Jeremy Jordan) and Cathy (Anna Kendrick), whose five-year relationship disintegrates in the opening minutes, were so compelling that an audience would ignore the inescapable staginess of the conceit? (They’re not.) Did he imagine that the baffling flashback/flash-forward structure would be somehow elucidated by editing? (It isn’t.)

Brown’s songs are supposed to do the job of revealing the two characters, explicating their romance (which turns into a marriage at some point) and demonstrating the reasons for its demise, but you never understand what they see in each other. The musical skips their courtship; all we learn is that they have a lively sex life and that he, a Jewish writer, thinks of her as his “shiksa goddess” – and, by the way, that’s about as far as Brown goes in exploring their cultural differences or what, if anything, Jamie’s Jewishness means to him. (Jamie strikes me as a rather goyishe name, and Jeremy Jordan doesn’t look Jewish.) It isn’t a character note; Brown treats it as a cosmetic detail, as if the first time these two slept together he sang about her birthmark or tattoo. We do see what tears them apart: he sells his first novel to Random House, it becomes a bestseller, and once he becomes a celebrity he can’t resist the temptation of other women, while she struggles with an acting career, failing to land any roles in New York and spending summers performing in stock in rural Ohio. But we don’t know enough about either of them to care what happens to their marriage, and the songs don’t build into a narrative; they’re as disparate as audition pieces.

And that, I’m sure, is their main purpose in the musical-theatre world. Young actors love Jason Robert Brown, though the emotions in his songs are patented, the sentiments banal and the melodies disposable, with that fake country-western sound contemporary show music is inexplicably fond of. There wasn’t a single song in The Last Five Years I wanted to hear over again, though the two stars sing them efficiently. If Jordan is looking to make the leap from Broadway to movies, I don’t think this picture is going to do it for him. I saw him in the Christian Bale part in Newsies and he was perfectly OK, but he didn’t make a lasting impression, and the camera doesn’t bring out depths in him that weren’t apparent on the big Broadway stage. He made a hit with teenage girls in Newsies – the day I saw the show, a gaggle of them screamed when he entered. Perhaps that explains why LaGravenese includes so many shots of Jordan in his underwear, unless he intends us to see his graduating from boxers to boxer briefs as a comment on his rising star. But he doesn’t appear to have much of a personality. Kendrick has much more to offer, but in this role her needle is stuck on “sincere” and you get tired of her.

It doesn’t help that Brown didn’t write duets for Cathy and Jamie. She sings and then he sings and then she sings and then he sings; whichever character isn’t singing has nothing to do except hang around and look as if he/she is acting. This may be the worst conceived musical film I’ve ever seen. In one scene Jamie sings and a dancing ensemble we’ve never seen before and won’t see again tosses off a few steps on a city street. You can try some weird things in musicals and get away with them. You can have almost all the songs on the soundtrack performed in voice-overs to suggest that we’re in the mind of the protagonist (Barbra Streisand’s Yentl).  You can have the actors lip-sync to old recordings to underscore their inability to express their feelings (Dennis Potter and Herbert Ross’s Pennies from Heaven). You can set deliberately prosaic words – the equivalent of everyday conversation – to irresistible music in order to turn the ordinary into the magical (Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg). There are ideas percolating in these experiments, and the results are spectacular. I have enough respect for LaGravenese, who’s written some marvelous screenplays (The Fisher King, Unstrung Heroes, A Little Princess, The Ref) to assume that he thought Brown was up to something interesting that might be even more interesting translated into film. What I can’t figure out is how he could have seen – or heard – The Last Five Years and arrived at that conclusion.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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