Here at last is peak Anna Kendrick: In intimate long takes and in comic montage, she belts, hurts, swoons, and rages, always remaining appealingly human. You can tell, when Kendrick scraps for her big notes, that she's not a natural, that she's working hard, that she's living a dream. All that fits her character in The Last Five Years, an actress for whom neither love nor career is working out. Simply put, she's grand, and her scenes and songs — which constitute most of the film — are worth treasuring.
As for the movie itself? First we need to go back to off-Broadway.
Elegant, spare, and rigorous in its form, Jason Robert Brown's two-character chamber musical The Last Five Years found rare joy and pain in the simplest of stories: Boy and girl meet and lose each other. Brown structured the show as something like a conversation, between the girl and the boy but also between the past and the present. They sing their story in alternating songs, hers and his, each a solo. Her first — the tentative-swelling-to-heartrending triumph "Still Hurting" — comes from the end of the romance, as she's first starting to heal from it, while his — that sour-candy hallelujah-she's-not-another-Jew number "Shiksa Goddess" — is right from the couple's horny start. From there, their timelines twine: Her songs tell the story in reverse; his tell it straight through.
That might sound fussy, but onstage it proved revelatory. His song of new love follows hers of raw heartbreak, and they enrich each other, sobering the promise of the relationship to come and lacing the breakup with all the promise they have lost. And since the performers sit out each other's songs, the show digs at the most frightening doubts: that you and the partner you love are not feeling the same things at the same time — that she's going her way while you're going yours. Only once, in the stage show, does the couple sync up. Jamie, the man, proposes to Cathy, the woman, as they stroll, hand in hand, through Central Park. This moment of connection feels miraculous. They kiss, they exchange vows, they duet, they waltz. And then, from there, he's singing toward that marriage's doom, while she plows back to their earliest days.
I belabor all of this to make clear just what has been gained and lost in Richard LaGravenese's film of The Last Five Years, an adaptation that's daringly faithful — but that also chucks all the clarity and power of the original's form. Onscreen, Cathy (Anna Kendrick) and Jamie (Jeremy Jordan) are all over each other, winningly so. Teensy Kendrick wraps around Jordan like a fanny pack as he sings "Shiksa Goddess," and they slide each other out of their clothes. Next comes her song of failed reconciliation, "See I'm Smiling," which finds Jamie disappointing her on a weekend visit to Ohio, where she's acting in summer stock. First, she's hopeful — "We'll have to try a little harder," she intones, but "We're doing fine" — and then she's moved to berate him, powerfully, for rushing back to New York. Onstage, these are sung monologues; onscreen, Jamie has lines during "See I'm Smiling," and the song no longer feels like a dip into her headspace. In the movie, where most moments between them are now shared, that double helix of perspectives feels like a confused tangle, with a sad scene following a happy scene without any clear organizing conceit. This especially harms that wedding duet. By that point, there's no feeling that two isolated people have briefly, beautifully converged — we're just seeing the bit where they get married. (Pretty song, though.)
But something else is gained. If Brown's first-rate piano-pop showtunes move you, you'll also most likely be stirred by the vibrant connection between the leads. Kendrick and Jordan look, variously, like they lust for, ache for, and detest each other, and both are excellent at making belted lyrics seem conversational, like they're just dishing their thoughts. The songs form the bulk of the movie — there's perhaps five minutes of spoken dialogue — and they're almost uniformly strong, both in composition and performance. So, from moment to moment, this Last Five Years is a robust entertainment, often stirring, sad, and funny. It works, even if audiences unfamiliar with the original are left to wonder why this story seems to go girl loses boy, boy meets/beds girl in New York, girl yells at boy in Ohio, and on and on.
Jordan, ripped and lively, brings considerable charm and intelligence to a heel's role. Jamie proves the difficult, unsupportive half of the couple, especially after Brown's story gives him everything he ever wanted: At 23, he has a high-minded bestselling novel at Random House. ("A young Jonathan Franzen," he's called in the movie; in the stage show, which premiered in 2001, Jamie gets reviewed by John Updike in the New Yorker — the lily gilded by the master of lily-gilding.) Jamie's songs, generally, are weaker than Cathy's, and two of them open with those unintentionally hilarious strutting riffs you get when piano-based musicals try for hard-driving rock. Fortunately, even then, the words are sharp, the melodies memorable, and the performances beautiful. This Last Five Years might not have the penetrating clarity of Brown's original show, but it offers miles and piles of compensation.