Absolutely no one saw this 2015 movie musical. In 2016, Lee and Maria did.
“The Last Five Years” is a movie musical that boasts a surprisingly interesting framing device. It follows two involved people from both the start and end of their relationship, from one perspective at a time, moving backwards and forwards through time simultaneously until they have swapped places. To simplify: the girl, Cathy, starts the story at the end of the relationship and ends the movie at the point where they had just started dating, vice-versa for the guy, Jamie, who follows the more traditional time-moving forward path.
We hear them sing a song, one at a time, from their perspective on what was happening at that point in the relationship and by the time we reach the end of the musical, in theory we should have a clear picture of what happened from both perspectives.
There’s even a very clever twist on the formula within the movie itself; the only duet is in the middle of the movie, where the timelines cross each other, and there’s even some subtle build up to this event as the songs on either side feature fragments of dialogue or refrains from the less-focussed on other. It’s actually rather novel as far as storytelling gimmicks go, requesting the audience to pay extra attention to the one-sided conversations in the hope for payoff later. In that sense, it plays somewhat like how a mystery framework might, as we wait for the movie to fill in its own blanks.
A good concept can make a good movie a great one, and here we have not just a good concept, but a smart one to boot. You can imagine then how mediocre the movie must be that I recommend you not watch “The Last Five Years”.
What an absolute shame that such an interesting concept is wasted on such miserable, contemptible, shallow, misguided excuses for lead characters. The King and Queen of White People, Former Grand Duke and Duchess of First World Problems: Jamie is a top selling novelist whose sheer incredible success destroys his relationship with Cathy, who feels Jamie doesn’t even recognise how hard she is working to be a star on Broadway.
First: Jamie. He ‘falls in love’ with Cathy because she’s really pretty, and begins to fast-forward their relationship with every opportunity he gets as he meets success after success in his book publishing career because he has now got all the money in the world to get Cathy all the things she wants. He encourages her to make something of herself, he thinks of her as a muse, and then, for absolutely no discernible reason, begins to stray, becomes a washed-out party animal who hates his wife for failing to support him all the time at parties that he attends for no justifiable reason, proceeds to cheats on her then leaves her, possibly out of guilt. Woe; the price of fame!
Then: Cathy. Solely motivated by sex and being better than her never-seen friend from college, and after urging Jamie to fast-forward their relationship by moving in together, she flip-flops from awe-inspired by Jamie’s sexiness to obsessed with chasing “the dream” to baby-crazy to depressed at how hard her life has come to be supporting her asshole husband until, finally, he leaves her.
Suffice it to say, these are not the great characters of our time. Written like how your friend might describe the many reasons that their own relationship broke down, the mixed messages and low points don’t help disguise the idea that they still seem to be saying the other started it. In this movie’s case, methinks it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to suppose, secretly, the writer sides with Jamie.
Cathy is never portrayed with any single positive trait to call her own. Ambition alone is not a positive; people can be ambitious in genocide, for one (slightly extreme) example. She never outright supports Jamie without second-guessing herself, she doubts her own dream, she loathes Jamie’s later lifestyle even before it takes a bad turn, which ultimately could be seen as what makes it take a bad turn, and inevitably mutes herself from the relationship before being left to grieve its loss.
Meanwhile, while Jamie might be an asshole, he sure is a supportive and kind asshole for much of their relationship. The writer almost seems to be saying “we were both at fault. Her for not supporting me when I needed her and me for supporting her when I shouldn’t have,” which is just about the most repulsive train of thought one could have. All guilt becomes forced when the obvious self-insert is the only one who tries with the relationship, and the final shot of the ghost of her past staring at asshole future him as he leaves for the last time registers as “remember when she was pure and innocent” way more than “look at how much he’s failed her”. Boy, it’s ugly.
But, in the writer’s defence, that last one might have more to do with the awful direction. Sure, the greatest weak point in a movie driven solely by the dialogue of its two terrible leads is exactly the weak point you expect it to be, but the direction won’t take this loss lying down, oh no! Scenes repeatedly end in fades to white; sometimes just to fade back into the same scene, just from a different angle, with seemingly no desired effect at all. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Shoddy low-angle handhelds make every scene intimately frame on the nearest shoulder; usually in the classic Dutch angle because it sure isn’t dramatic if isn’t in Dutch. Choreography comes and goes with no discernible rhythm; the film breaks away from its own reality twice but not in the eight minute song that takes place in a fictional land; constant blocking by background actors leads to one shot in which we stare at the back of an extra for four seconds while Jamie is singing; they even manage to fumble the framing device, the one true positive this movie has.
The centrepiece of the movie is the wedding scene, and just before it, we see the couple holding hands, walking together with only Jamie’s dialogue to guide us; a neat moment symbolising the joining of the timelines, to be bookended by a reverse scene in which, moving backwards both conversationally and physically as the hands detach once again, we hear only Cathy. It’s a smart moment that guides the audience through this somewhat tricky narrative transition. Except this isn’t what happens in the movie.
No, instead we get the same footage of the hands holding in forward time again, only this time with Cathy’s dialogue playing in the same order as Jamie’s, leading to a narrative paradox where symbolically both timelines have joined and then, supposedly, both gone forward together rather than split in opposite directions. It’s a moment so bafflingly misguided it corrupts the premise of the narrative.
The rest: the acting is fine, nothing spectacular. Same goes for the music, which is rather conventional modern Broadway fare, serviceable to the dialogue and not much else. Neither will sway you, and certainly not when paired to the two cartoon villains the story wants you to invest in.
Hopefully we’ll see someone take the same premise and try again, as to see this done right would be a treat to behold. Meanwhile, we’re left wondering which is worse: the terrible sentiments, the terrible characters who deliver them or the terrible direction which fails to deliver anything? Don’t watch; I’ll decide for you.
Was shit. Anna Kendrick is shrill as fuck. And I had liked that musical. Bad times. Close your eyes and ears.
[Lee’s review originally posted 25/05/16]