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If scientists somehow could plug a projector directly into Taylor Swift and broadcast the singer-songwriter’s pop soul onto a blank screen, I imagine it would look exactly like The Last Five Years. Saccharine sweet and dripping with the dewy longings of young love, this adaptation of the off-Broadway musical showcases Anna Kendrick’s unquestionable singing abilities but drowns in its own frothy excess. I left our screening at the Toronto International Film Festival feeling like I’d eaten 15 desserts for dinner.
Maybe this is what fans of Jason Robert Brown’s award-winning off-Broadway production want and expect? I’m unfamiliar with the songbook for The Last Five Years, and gambled on Richard LaGravenese’s musical while at the Toronto International Film Festival because I believe in Anna Kendrick. The Pitch Perfect star doesn’t disappoint, playing Cathy Hiatt – one half of the duo whose 5-year relationship inspires the musical’s tunes.
The Last Five Years opens with a powerfully staged and moving rendition of "Still Hurting," with LaGravenese training his camera on his talented actress so she can convey the pain she feels following her break up with Jamie (Jeremy Jordan). The musical – and the movie – tells Cathy and Jamie’s courtship out of order, from the hot and heavy first dates ("Shiksa Goddess") to the confusion caused by the obstacles facing their relationship and marriage ("The Next Ten Minutes," "If I Didn’t Believe In You").
Jamie, you see, has become an overnight sensation in the literary community, penning a book that places him on Random House’s charts and turns him into the toast of the town. Initially, Cathy is very supportive ("I’m a Part of That"). But she eventually resents the attention her husband receives while she struggles to get her acting career off the ground (Kendrick kills on a very funny rendition of "A Summer in Ohio"). Every song in The Last Five Years, though, springs from the pop music playbook, focusing intently on falling in love, staying in love, being loved, getting dumped, wallowing in self-pity, dreaming of chasing a professional goal, longing for that cute boy… it’s a cutesy, bubblegum-Broadway offering that lacks emotional weight outside of that stunning opening number.
The Last Five Years didn’t deliver on what I was hoping to get out of it, but the fans of the musical might want only this, and nothing more. Kendrick and Jordan are talented singers (though she might be getting tired of it), but the film merely dabbles in light choreography as it moves the characters through everyday New York City life. Though this is a wall-to-wall musical with non-stop singing, the actors talk-perform, and only once do surrounding characters flirt with getting in on the act (as background dancers). Outside of that one irregularity, you might ask why these two people walking around Manhattan are singing at all. I could spend the next five years thinking about it, and still not come up with a suitable answer.